My husband got a new job as a software developer, and right now he’s working from home. I have found in the short time since he took this new position that we cannot both work from home at the same time. The work environment he cultivates to be productive does not jive with my own. I like to work from my couch, preferably with a dog or two sleeping next to me. I like to have the television on but muted, and the front windows open to let in natural light. My husband works in the adjacent room, our office, with two computer screens in front of him, listening to the comedy station on Pandora and holding videoconferences with his development team intermittently throughout the day. My threshold for how many stand up routines I can endure is severely low, I must admit. So in the last month, I have been transitioning to an on-campus work routine.
One of many quirks: Keats was very attuned to his working conditions–not only the space in which he worked but also his mental state and even bodily position. “Sleep and Poetry,” which concludes his first volume of poetry, famously details his situation in Leigh Hunt’s study, on his couch, among the busts of Sappho, Petrarch, and others. And when Keats set himself the task of composing Endymion, he sought the perfect environment for immersion in his project. Beginning on the Isle of Wight, away from the distractions of his London social demands or family obligations, the poet borrowed a portrait of Shakespeare from the downstairs of his lodgings and hung it in his own room above his desk. He brought multiple volumes to read as well as display in the efforts of cultivating a comfortable and conducive workspace. Moreover, he chose a spot by the sea and among trees, hoping for natural inspiration.
Despite his best efforts, he found himself out of sorts, in the wrong state of mind for his task. Keats reflected upon what unsettled him on the Isle of Wight, writing to Leigh Hunt, “I was too much in Solitude, and consequently was obliged to be in continual burning of thought as an only resource” (“To Leigh Hunt,” 10 May 1817). So Keats summoned his brother Tom, and the two met at Margate, a more familiar locale where the brothers passed a very pleasant few weeks the previous summer. As someone attempting to understand the way Keats and the Hunt circle theorized sociability, what I find most interesting about these anecdotes from Keats’s biography is how for him the perfect work environment seemed to require some company– a brother or a friend like Benjamin Bailey or Charles Brown, and when they were not available portraits or busts of masters like Shakespeare could fill in with some success.
And when the physical presence of a friend was impossible, Keats resorts to more creative means of conjuring an ideal work space. Take for instance a letter to George where John writes,
the candles are burnt down and I am using the wax taper–which has a long snuff on it–the fire is at its last click–I am sitting with my back to it with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet–I am writing this on the Maid’s Tragedy which I have read since tea with Great pleasure—Besides this volume of Beaumont & Fletcher–there are on the table two volumes of chaucer [sic] and a new work of Tom Moores [sic]. (“To George and Georgiana Keats,” Spring 1819)
Here the detailed description of his physical situation allows for an imagined communion with his brother. George will know exactly how John sat when thinking of him. John continues, “These are trifles–but I require nothing so much of you as that you will given me a like description of yourselves, however it may be when you are writing me.” John wants to imagine his brother imagining him.
In another attempt to conjure a working community with George, John proposed the brothers share a reading session: they will pour over the same passage at the same time, and thus be together, despite the geographic distance. John writes, “[I will]read a passage of Shakspeare [sic] every Sunday at ten o Clock– you read one at the same time and we shall be as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room” (“To George and Georgiana Keats,” December-Jan 1819). This imagined community serves a dual purpose of first creating a productive work environment, one that circumvents feelings of melancholy due to his solitude, while also granting comfort of shared experience to brothers separated for many months by thousands of miles.
I am trying out a writing group in my own efforts to reshape my work environment as I begin my dissertation. I have heard from friends and mentors alike that the people listed in the acknowledgements page of that first monograph are always the writer’s fellow dissertators–those friends and colleagues who worked silently alongside her in the library grad lounge, who served as sounding boards for some of her wilder ideas, who harassed her when she skipped the scheduled study session because she prefered an afternoon of mindless reality tv to writing that section about Kant. My group is very small right now–just two of us on Wednesday afternoons. In a couple weeks, we will be adding Monday afternoons to our schedule, and hopefully we will see a few more fellow writers trickle in. For the first time, I’m trying the Keatsian method of social (or semi-social) composition because I’m told that it works, and I read how it worked for the many circles of Romantic writers. I’ll keep you posted on my little experiment.