He tells about his experience in losing his own self-identity: "When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to to press upon me, that I am in a very little time annihilated." And in the passage on the "Pleasure Thermometer" in Endymion, Keats recognizes the "self-destroying" character of the "richer entanglements" and "enthralments" which the ego experiences during its gradual ascent toward the "chief intensity," the state that leads to the total extinction of the I-process and the discovery of the immortal Self.
Identifying beauty with truth and truth with beauty in his famous Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats also holds that our feelings are "creative of essential Beauty." In other words, the truth is discoverable through imaginative feeling -- that is, intuition.
On Sept. 21, 1819, John Keats wrote to his brother George that he was “scarcely content to write the best verses for the fever they leave behind. I want to compose without this fever.” The fever is no metaphor. In another letter dated that same day, he had sent a friend a copy of his poem “To Autumn,” written just then, one of the greatest poems in the English language and the last of Keats’s great odes. For Keats, poetry was never emotion recollected in tranquillity, as it was for Wordsworth. It was often tranquillity refigured by his fevered mind.
The mental fever of making poems was, for Keats, a medical issue. When he fell ill, beginning in 1817, the doctors always tried to stop him from writing poetry. One physician kept dosing Keats with mercury, hoping to cure his recurring sore throat and perhaps a case of venereal disease, for which mercury, a dangerous substance, was a standard treatment at the time. And every doctor — even Keats himself, who had medical training — advised the use of laudanum, a tincture of opium in alcohol. Keats had given it to his brother Tom in late 1818 to ease his pain and suppress his tubercular cough when he was dying, and Keats had used it to help himself sleep during that terrible time. For someone as ill as Keats would be, it was a palliative, not a hallucinogen. That he used it makes no difference at all to our estimate of the man or his poems.
A version of this editorial appears in print on September 30, 2012, on Page SR16 of the with the headline: Can Opium or Illness Explain a Keats Poem?.
Anna Jean Mill has pointed out that, indirectly, in the Ode on a Grecian Urn and, directly, in the Ode on Melancholy and, especially, in the ode To Autumn, Keats is "haunted by that sense of the transcience of earthly beauty, by the perpetual process of ripening and decaying, unfolding and withering, by that ever-present concept of 'Beauty that must die.'" But unlike in the Ode on Melancholy, in To Autumn, she observes, Keats's "wakeful anguish of the soul" is "replaced by a calm acceptance of tragic destiny," an attitude he has described as characteristic of the man of negative capability.