Sunday [21 Dec. 1817]
My dear brothers,
I must crave your pardon for not having written ere this.

I saw Kean return to the public in ‘Richard III’, and finely he did it, and, at the request of Reynolds, I went to criticize his Luke in Riches. The critique is in to-day's ‘Champion’, which I send you, with the Examiner, in which you will find very proper lamentation on the obsoletion of Christmas Gambols and pastimes: but it was mixed up with so much egotism of that drivelling nature that pleasure is entirely lost. Hone, the publisher’s trial, you must find very amusing; and, as Englishmen, very encouraging — his Not Guilty is a thing, which not to have been, would have dulled still more Liberty’s Emblazoning — Lord Ellenborough has been paid in his own coin — Wooler and Hone have done us an essential service — I have had two very pleasant evenings with Dilke, yesterday and to-day, and am at this moment just come from him, and feel in the humour to go on I spent Friday evening with Wells, and went next morning to see Death on the Pale Horse. It is a wonderful picture, when West’s age is considered; But there is nothing to be intense upon; no woman one feels mad to kiss, no face swelling into reality — The excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth. Examine ‘King Lear’, and you will find this exemplified throughout; but in this picture we have unpleasantness without any momentous depth of speculation excited, in which to bury its repulsiveness — The picture is larger than ‘Christ rejected’.

I dined with Haydon the Sunday after you left, and had a very pleasant day, I dined too (for I have been out too much lately) with Horace Smith, and met his two Brothers, with Hill and Kingston, and one Du Bois. They only served to convince me, how superior humour is to wit in respect to enjoyment — These men say things which make one start, without making one feel; they are all alike; their manners are alike; they all know fashionables; they have a mannerism in their eating and drinking, in their mere handling a Decanter — They talked of Kean and his low company — Would I were with that Company instead of yours, said I to myself!  I know such like acquaintance will never do for me and yet I am going to Reynolds on Wednesday. Brown and Dilke walked with me and back from the Christmas pantomime. I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason — Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

Shelley’s poem is out, and there are words about its being obiected to as much as “Queen Mab” was. Poor Shelley, I think he has his Quota of good qualities, in sooth la!!  Write soon to your most sincere friend and affectionate Brother

21 Dec. 1817 — When you see a date in brackets in a re-printed letter, that means the editors have determined the date by means of some internal or external evidence, but the letter itself is undated.
Hampstead — a section of London; at the time Keats lived there, it was still relatively undeveloped. Now, it is one of the most expensive sections of the city.
brothers — John Keats had two surviving younger brothers, George (1797-1841) and Thomas (1799-1818). He also had a brother who died in infancy (Edward, 1801-1802) and a sister Frances (1803-1889), whom — as was the custom with that name — everyone called Fanny.
Kean — Edmund Kean (1787-1833), generally acclaimed as the greatest actor of his time. One famous story claims that on his deathbed, when asked how he felt, he replied, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” (The truth of this story has been questioned.)
‘Richard III’ — Shakespeare’s play about the scheming, villainous hunchback whose famous first and last lines, are “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York” and “A horse, a horse! my kingdom for a horse!”
‘Champion’ — a newspaper for which Keats wrote reviews
Examiner —a radical newspaper published by Leigh Hunt, the poet and essayist who admired both Keats and Percy Shelley, and who introduced them to each other
Reynolds — John Hamilton Reynolds, friend of Keats, was a critic, poet, and playwright whose works are seldom read now. You can see his portrait here.
Luke in Riches — a play by James Bland Burgess (1752-1824), also known as Sir James Bland Lamb, Baronet, who was a barrister (trial lawyer) and Member of Parliament
Hone — William Hone had been charged with blasphemy and sedition for publishing The Reformists’ Register, a newspaper that promoted radical political opinions, and four satirical pamphlets that used Church of England liturgy as the basis for attacks on the current government. Hone successfully defended himself by reading other, similar parodies (including one by a member of the current cabinet) aloud, often with the result that the audience in the courtroom broke out in raucous laughter. It was a major victory for freedom of the press.
Lord Ellenborough — The judge who presided over the Hone trial, Lord Ellenboroughwas known for favoring the power of the state over the freedom of the individual. He directed the jury to come to a verdict of guilty, and their refusal to do so was widely seen as a humiliation for him. He died in December of 1818, and rightly or wrongly, the strain of the Hone trial was considered to have contributed to his death.
Dilke — Charles Wentworth Dilke, a well-to-do friend of the Keats brothers who had liberal political views. The family remained important in English politics for another two generations.
Death on the Pale Horse — Actually, the title is Death on a Pale Horse; it is a painting by the American-born painter Benjamin West (1738-1820). You can see it here.
Christ rejectedChrist Rejected by the Jews, another painting by West.
Haydon — Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846), a British painter and writer, and a friend of Keats.
Horace Smith — a friend of Shelley and occasional poet
low company — disreputable friends and acquaintances; clearly the Smith brothers and the other guests that night expressed disapproval of the company Edmund Kean kept.
Brown — Charles Armitage Brown, Keats’s closest friend at this point in his life. Brown later wrote one of the early recollections of Keats, whom he described as “a superior being.” The work is far too subjective to be called a biography, and it continues the rather silly assertion made by Shelley in “Adonais” that the young poet had been slain by the vicious reviews his first book had drawn. Still, the text makes clear that Brown looked on Keats with something like worship, and it is a touching document. Brown also sketched what most consider to be the most accurate portrait of Keats we have. You can see it here.
versimilitude — something that is the image of truth
Penetralium — the most secret part

from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge — Here, Keats likely refers to one or more of Coleridge’s poems. The prior year (1816), Coleridge had published “Kubla Khan; or A Vision in Dream,” now generally considered one of his greatest works. However, he prefaced it with what was, in effect, an apology, saying that he had begun the poem many years earlier but had never been able to finish it. In that introduction, he explains that while ill he had been prescribed medicine (it was laudanum, a liquid form of opium, and Coleridge tragically became addicted to it) by a doctor and fell asleep reading a book called Purchas’s Pilgrimage, which led to a dream during which he had effortlessly composed “not less than two to three hundred lines.” When he awoke, he began writing those lines down, but he was interrupted by “a person on business from Porlock,” and when he returned he could no longer remember the rest of the poem. Only after the great poet Lord Byron heard Coleridge recite it and insisted Coleridge publish it did he do so, and he even refused to name Byron as the poet for fear of embarrassing him, saying that he was publishing it “at the request of a poet of great and deserved celebrity, and as far as the author’s own opinions are concerned, rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the ground of any supposed poetic merits.”

In the same volume in which Coleridge published “Kubla Khan,” he — also at Byron’s urging — published “Christabel,” a poem about a young noblewoman who goes out in the woods and encounters a supernatural creature, a kind of lesbian vampire named Geraldine. Coleridge had completed the first part of the poem in 1797 and the second part in 1800, but he supposedly had plans for three more parts that he never wrote. At the point the poem ends, Geraldine appears triumphant, and though Coleridge assured readers that all would be well in the end, imagining how he would have brought about that conclusion (given the situation at the end of Part II) is practically impossible. Keats could thus have had this poem in mind instead, or both poems equally, as examples of a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery that Coleridge is willing to let go by (abandon).

Shelley’s poem — “Laon and Cythna; or The Revolution of the Golden City” is Shelley’s longest poem and expresses his radical views on all manner of issues. It had been published in November 1817 but was quickly withdrawn (perhaps because in the original version the two titular lovers are also siblings, continuing the theme of incest that often crops up in Romantic literature from Wordsworth and Byron to Poe). Shelley revised it and re-published it under the new title “The Revolt of Islam” in January, 1818.
Queen Mab — Shelley’s first major work, subtitled “A Philosophical Poem,” completed and published in 1813. The work was so politically radical that Shelley did not try to have it distributed commercially. Instead, he gave or sent about seventy copies to friends and people he considered political allies, and even then he cut his name from the pages. The poem did not therefore receive much notice until 1817, when it was introduced into evidence in court when Shelley tried to obtain custody of his children Ianthe, Charles, and William (by his wife Harriet, who had committed suicide); Shelley lost the battle for custody. Later, the poem was often cited by various radical factions in British politics, from the Chartists (who favored universal male suffrage, vote by secret ballot, equal-sized electoral districts, the right for any male of voting age to run for a seat in Parliament, and pay for Members of Parliament so that not only the independently wealthy could afford to serve) to the Marxists.
in sooth la — really, truly