John Keats: ‘The vale of Soul-making’

John Keats wrote a letter to his sister and brother, in which he offers a view on the significance of life: the world is the ‘vale of Soul-making.’ Here are some excepts from the letter. Please note that quotes from the letter are in the original form, and purposively left unedited.

I have been reading lately two very different books, Robertson’s America and Voltaire’s Siecle De Louis XIV. It is like walking arm and arm between Pizarro and the great-little Monarch. In How lamentable a case do we see the great body of the people in both instances: in the first, where Men might seem to inherit quiet of Mind from unsophisticated senses; from uncontamination of civilisation; and especially from their being as it were estranged from the mutual helps of Society and its mutual injuries -and thereby more immediately under the Protection of Providence-even there they had mortal pains to bear as bad; or even worse than Ba[i]liffs, Debts and Poverties of civilised Life-The whole appears to resolve into this-that Man is originally ‘a poor forked creature’ subject to the same mischances as the beasts of the forest, destined to hardships and disquietude of some kind or other.

Here Keats first opposes two states of human life: one of nature and one civilization. They both involve what he calls ‘hardships’ and ‘mortal pains.’ In the state of nature such pains are ‘mischances’ and in civilization they are ‘the Debts and Poverties of civilised Life.’

If he improves by degrees his bodily accommodations and comforts-at each stage, at each accent [for ascent] there are waiting for him a fresh set of annoyances-he is mortal and there is still a heaven with its Stars above his head. The most interesting question that can come before us is, How far by the persevering endeavours of a seldom appearing Socrates Mankind may be made happy-I can imagine such happiness carried to an extreme-but what must it end in?-Death-and who could in such a case bear with death-the whole troubles of life which are now frittered away in a series of years, would the[n] be accumulated for the last days of a being who instead of hailing its approach, would leave this world as Eve left Paradise-But in truth I do not at all believe in this sort of perfectibility-the nature of the world will not admit of it-the inhabitants of the world will correspond to itself.

Even improvements bring with annoyances. Perfectibility is an illusion: ‘the world will not admit of it.’

Let the fish Philosophise the ice away from the Rivers in winter time and they shall be at continual play in the tepid de light of Summer. Look at the Poles and at the Sands of Africa, Whirlpools and volcanoes-Let men exterminate them and I will say that they may arrive at earthly Happiness-The point at which Man may arrive is as far as the parallel state in inanimate nature and no further-For instance suppose a rose to have sensation, it blooms on a beautiful morning it enjoys itself-but there comes a cold wind, a hot sun-it cannot escape it, it cannot destroy its annoyances-they are as native to the world as itself: no more can man be happy in spite, the worldly elements will prey upon his nature-

Even if we reach the limits of perfectibility, even if we reach some supposed state of ‘earthly Happiness,’ it will always be subject to the ‘worldly elements’… ‘which it cannot escape.’

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)

Keats juxtaposes two views on the world. One is ‘a vale of tears’ and other is “The vale of Soul-making.” The world as ‘a vale of tears’ is a world ‘from which we are to be redeemed.’ In that view there is no meaning in or use for this world.  The view of the ‘vale of Soul-making’ is as a world of meaning. The notion of soul offers an understanding of the ‘use of the world.’

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[n]telligences are atoms of perception-they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God-How then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them-so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence? I- low, but by the medium of a world like this? This point I sincerely wish to consider because ‘I think it a grander system of salvation than the christian religion -or rather it is a system of Spirit-creation-This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years.

‘Sparks’ become ‘souls’ through the ‘medium of a world like this.’ Keats here distinguishes between Soul and Intelligence through the use of the concept of identity or what he here and elsewhere calls a ‘bliss peculiar’ to ‘each one’s individual existence.’ Souls are made and acquire their own ‘identity’ through the interaction between ‘three grand materials.’

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 are the ‘Intelligence’, the ‘human heart’, and the ‘World.’ The World is an ‘Elemental space’ in which Intelligence and Heart work upon each other to form the Soul ‘destined to possess the sense of identity.’

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.

A ‘World of Pains’ is seen here not as something to avoid or perfect, but as a school for the Intelligence, in which we may use our Hearts as hornbooks or primers. The ‘heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways.’ And by turning the spark of the Mind to the Heart, the Mind begins to develop a capacity to ‘read.’ Here Keats offers a wonderful image: the Heart is a breast from which the Mind may draw an identity, like milk from a ‘teat’ or breast.

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-This appears to me a faint sketch of a system of Salvation which does not affront our reason and humanity-I am convinced that many difficulties which Christians labour under would vanish before it-there is one which even now Strikes me-the Salvation of Children-In them the Spark or intelligence returns to God without any identity-it having had no time to learn of and be altered by the heart-or seat of the human Passions-It is pretty generally suspected that the cbr[i]stian scheme has been coppied from the ancient persian and greek Philosophers. Why may they not have made this simple thing even more simple for common apprehension by introducing Mediators and Personages in the same manner as in the he[a]then mythology abstractions are personified-Seriously I think it probable that this System of Soul-making-may have been the Parent of all the more palpable and personal Schemes of Redemption, among the Zoroastrians the Christians and the Hindoos. For as one part of the human species must have their carved Jupiter; so another part must have the palpable and named Mediator and Saviour, their Christ their Oromanes and their Vishnu-If what I have said should not be plain enough, as I fear it may not be, I will but [for put] you in the place where I began in this series of thoughts-I mean, I began by seeing how man was formed by circumstances-and what are circumstances?-but touchstones of his heart-? and what are touchstones? but proovings of his heart? and what are proovings of his heart but fortifiers or alterers of his nature?

In the ‘vale of tears’ there is no transformation, there is no purpose to the world. It is nothing more than a place to be perfected or avoided. In this view ‘the Spark or intelligence returns to God without any identity-it having had no time to learn of and be altered by the heart.’ Keats introduces us to a path of soul, in which ‘circumstances are ‘touchstones of the heart.’ In which transformations or ‘alterations of our nature’ are possible. These are the ‘proovings of the heart.’

and what is his altered nature but his Soul?-and what was his Soul before it came into the world and had these provings and alterations and perfectionings?-An intelligence-without Identity-and how is this Identity to be made? Through the medium of the Heart? And how is the heart to become this Medium but in a world of Circumstances? . . .

And what is this transformation but the transformations of the soul, taking place within ‘the medium of the Heart’… ‘in a world of Circumstances.’


2 thoughts on “John Keats: ‘The vale of Soul-making’

  1. It seems that here, too, we can Keats imagining God (so called :-)) using a dialectical tension between “good” and “evil” to create souls. 🙂

    Aside: I wonder if this piece reads as you intended. It seems that ocr software may have misread some of the text.

  2. Yes David, life with all of its dialectical tensions and paradox, including good and evil, provides the perfect vessel for soul making.

    Thanks for noting this issue above. I will clean it up when I get a chance.

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