1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Keats

Leigh Hunt, "Mr. Keats" in Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries (1828) 246-68.



Mr. KEATS, when he died, had just completed his four-and-twentieth year. He was under the middle height; and his lower limbs were small in comparison with the upper, but neat and well-turned. His shoulders were very broad for his size: he had a face, in which energy and sensibility were remarkably mixed up, an eager power checked and made patient by ill-health. Every feature was at once strongly cut, and delicately alive. If there was any faulty expression, it was in the mouth, which was not without something of a character of pugnacity. The face was rather long than otherwise; the upper lip projected a little over the under; the chin was bold, the cheeks sunken; the eyes mellow and glowing; large, dark and sensitive. At the recital of a noble action, or a beautiful thought, they would suffuse with tears, and his mouth trembled. In this, there was ill health as well as imagination, for he did not like these betrayals of emotion; and he had great personal as well as moral courage. His hair, of a brown colour, was fine, and hung in natural ringlets. The head was a puzzle for the phrenologists, being remarkably small in the skull; a singularity which he had in common with Lord Byron and Mr. Shelley, none of whose hats I could get on. Mr. Keats was sensible of the disproportion above noticed, between his upper and lower extremities; and he would look at his hand, which was faded, and swollen in the veins, and say it was the hand of a man of fifty. He was a seven month's child: his mother, who was a lively woman, passionately fond of amusement, is supposed to have hastened her death by too great an inattention to hours and seasons. Perhaps she hastened that of her son.

Mr. Keats's origin was of the humblest description, he was born October 29, 1796, at a livery-stables in Moorfields, of which his grandfather was the proprietor. I am very incurious, and did not know this till the other day. He never spoke of it, perhaps out of a personal soreness which the world had exasperated. After receiving the rudiments of a classical education at Mr. Clarke's school at Enfield, he was bound apprentice to Mr. Hammond, a surgeon, in Church-street, Edmonton; and his enemies having made a jest even of this, he did not like to be reminded of it; at once disdaining them for their meanness, and himself for being sick enough to be moved by them. Mr. Clarke, junior, his schoolmaster's son, a reader of genuine discernment, had encouraged with great warmth the genius that he saw in the young poet; and it was to Mr. Clarke I was indebted for my acquaintance with him. I shall never forget the impression made upon me by the exuberant specimens of genuine though young poetry that were laid before me, and the promise of which was seconded by the fine fervid countenance of the writer. We became intimate on the spot, and I found the young poet's heart as warm as his imagination. We read and walked together, and used to write verses of an evening upon a given subject. No imaginative pleasure was left unnoticed by us, or unenjoyed; from the recollection of the bards and patriots of old, to the luxury of a summer rain at our window, or the clicking of the coal in winter-time. Not long afterwards, having the pleasure Of entertaining at dinner Mr. Godwin, Mr. Hazlitt, and Mr. Basil Montague, I showed them the verses of my young friend, and they were pronounced to be as extraordinary as I thought them. One of them was that noble sonnet on first reading Chapman's Homer, which terminates with so energetic a calmness, and which completely announced the new poet taking possession. As Mr. Keats's first juvenile volume is not much known, I will repeat the sonnet here, as a remarkable instance of a vein prematurely masculine.

ON FIRST LOOKING INTO CHAPMAN'S HOMER.
Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been,
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold;
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told,
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene,
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies,
When a new planet swims into his ken,
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmize,
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Modern criticism has made the public well acquainted with the merits of Chapman. The retainers of some schools of poetry may not see very far into his old oracular style; but the poets themselves (the true test of poetical merit) have always felt the impression. Waller professed that he could never read him without a movement of transport; and Pope, in the preface to his translation, says that he was animated by a daring fiery spirit, something like what we may conceive of Homer himself "before he arrived at years of discretion." Chapman certainly stands upon no ceremony. He blows as rough a blast as Achilles could have desired to hear, very different from the soft music of a parade. "The whales exult" under his Neptune, playing unwieldy gambols; and his Ulysses issues out of the shipwreck, "soaked to the very heart;" tasting of sea-weeds and salt-water, in a style that does not at all mince the matter, or consult the proprieties of Brighton. Mr. Keats's epithets of "loud and bold," showed that he understood him thoroughly. The men of Cortez staring at each other, and the eagle eyes of their leader looking out upon the Pacific, have been thought too violent a picture for the dignity of the occasion; but it is a case that requires the exception. Cortez's "eagle eyes" are a piece of historical painting, as the reader may see by Titian's portrait of him. The last line, "Silent — upon a peak in Darien," makes the mountain a part of the spectacle, and supports the emotion of the rest of the sonnet upon a basis of gigantic tranquillity.

The volume containing this sonnet was published in 1817, when the author was in his twenty first year. The poem with which it begins, was suggested to him by a delightful summer-day, as he stood beside the gate that leads from the Battery on Hampstead Heath into a field by Caen Wood; and the last poem, the one On Sleep and Poetry, was occasioned by his sleeping in one of the cottages in the Vale of Health, the first one that fronts the valley, beginning from the same quarter. I mention these things, which now look trivial, because his readers will not think them so twenty years hence. It was in the beautiful lane, running from the road between Hampstead and Highgate to the foot of Highgate Hill, that, meeting me one day, he first gave me the volume. If the admirer of Mr. Keats's poetry does not know the lane in question, he ought to become acquainted with it, both on his author's account and its own. It has been also paced by Mr. Lamb and Mr. Hazlitt, and frequented, like the rest of the beautiful neighbourhood, by Mr. Coleridge; so that instead of Millfield Lane, which is the name it is known by "on earth," it has sometimes been called Poets' Lane, which is an appellation it richly deserves. It divides the grounds of Lords Mansfield and Southampton, running through trees and sloping meadows, and being rich in the botany for which this part of the neighbourhood of London has always been celebrated. I recommend it, contrary to the interests of my solitude; but the mischief done me by sociality pleases me, as usual, still better.

A drainless shower
Of light is poesy; 'tis the supreme of power;
'Tis might half slumb'ring on its own right arm.

These are some more of the lines in a book, in which feeble critics thought they saw nothing but feebleness. Here are four more, out of a profusion of mixed youth and beauty: — the writer is speaking of some engraved portraits, that adorned the room he slept in;—

Great Alfred's too, with anxious, pitying eyes,
As if he always listen'd to the sighs
Of the goaded world; and Kosciusko's, worn
With horrid suff'rance, — mightily forlorn.

But there were political opinions in the book; and these not according with the opinions of the then government authorities, the writer was found to be a very absurd person, and not to be borne. His youth, and the sincerity natural to youth, to say nothing of personal predilections, which are things that nobody has a right to indulge in but the affectionate followers of office, all told against instead of for him in the eyes of a servile weakness, jealous of independence in others, and (to say the truth) not very capable of discerning the greatest talent. To admire and comment upon the genius that two or three hundred years have applauded, and to discover what will partake of the applause two or three hundred years hence, are processes of a very different description. Accordingly, when Mr. Keats, in 1818, published his next volume, his poetic romance entitled Endymion, the critical authority, then reigning at the west end, showed it no mercy. What completed the matter was, that his publisher, in a fright, went to the critic to conciliate him; as if the greater and more insolent the opportunity of trampling, the petty tyrant would not be the happier to seize it. Mr. Gifford gave his visitor very plainly to understand that such would be the case. Such it was; and though the bookseller, who in reality had a better taste than the critic, and very properly felt piqued to support his author, stood by him in the publication of another volume, the sale of both volumes was neutralized in that gratuitous acquiescence with the critics, in which the public have since learnt not to be quite so trusting.

Endymion, it must be allowed, was not a little calculated to perplex the critics. It was a wilderness of sweets, but it was truly a wilderness; a domain of young, luxuriant, uncompromising poetry, where the "weeds of glorious feature" hampered the petty legs accustomed to the lawns and trodden walks, in vogue for the last hundred years; lawns, as Johnson says, "shaven by the scythe, and levelled with the roller;" walks, which, being public property, have been re-consecrated, like Kensington Gardens, by the beadles of authority, instead of the Pans and Sylvans. Mr. Wordsworth knew better than the critics, but he did not choose to say any thing. He stood upon equivocal footing himself, his greatest poetical recommendation arising from the most prosaical action of his life, to wit, his acceptance of the office of Distributor of Stamps. Mr. Keats, meeting him one day at Mr. Haydon's, — the same day when Lamb said that good thing about Voltaire, — our young poet was induced to repeat to the older one the Hymn to Pan out of Endymion; upon which Mr. Wordsworth said it was a "very pretty piece of Paganism." A new poet had come up, who "Had sight of Proteus coming from the sea;" and certainly "the world was not too much with him." But this, which is a thing desired by Lake Poets in their abstractions, is a presumption in the particular, and not to be countenanced. "Such sights as youthful poets dream" must cease, when their predecessors grow old; when they get jealous as fading beauties, and have little annuities for behaving themselves.

The great fault of Endymion, next to its unpruned luxuriance, (or before it, rather, for it was not a fault on the right side,) was the willfulness of its rhymes. The author had a just contempt for the monotonous termination of every-day couplets; he broke up his lines in order to distribute the rhyme properly; but going only upon the ground of his contempt, and not having yet settled with himself any principle of versification, the very exuberance of his ideas led him to make use of the first rhymes that offered; so that, by a new meeting of extremes, the effect was as artificial, and much more obtrusive than the one under the old system. Dryden modestly confessed, that a rhyme had often helped him to a thought. Mr. Keats, in the tyranny of his wealth, forced his rhymes to help him, whether they would or not; and they obeyed him, in the most singular manner, with equal promptitude and ungainness. Endymion, too, was not without its faults of weakness, as well as of power. Mr. Keats's natural tendency to pleasure, as a poet, sometimes degenerated, by reason of his ill health, into a poetical effeminacy. There are symptoms of it here and there in all his productions, not excepting the gigantic grandeur of Hyperion. His lovers grow "faint" with the sight of their mistresses; and Apollo, when he is superseding his divine predecessor, and undergoing his transformation into a Divus Major, suffers a little too exquisitely among his lilies. But Mr. Keats was aware of this contradiction to the real energy of his nature, and prepared to get rid of it. What is more, he said as much in the Preface to "Endymion," and in a manner calculated to conciliate all critics who were worth touching his volume; but not such were those, from whom the public were to receive their notions of him. Let the reader see it, and wish, if he has hitherto read nothing but criticism upon him, that he had seen it before [omitted].

An organized system of abuse had come up at this period, of a nature with which it was thought no department of literature had hitherto been polluted. The mistake was natural, after a long interval of decorum; but similar abuses have always taken place, when society was not better occupied, or when jealousy and party spleen paid an adversary the compliment of thinking itself sufficiently provoked. A shelf full of scandal might be collected against Dryden and Pope. "The life of a wit," said Steele, "is a warfare upon earth;" and he had good reason to know it. There was a man of the name of Baker, who made it his business to assail him with criticisms and personalities. The wits themselves too often assailed one another, and in a manner worthy of their calumniators, of which there is humiliating evidence in the lives of Addison and Swift. Even Shakspeare was not without his libeller. Somebody in his time accused him, in common with his fellow playwrights, of irreligion, — nay, of personal arrogance, and of taking himself for the only "Shake-scene" of the theatre. The new taste in calumny, however, surpassed all the other, by its avowed contempt for truth and decency. It seemed to think, that by an excess of impudence it would confound objection, and even bully itself out of the last fingerings of conscience; and the public, who were mean enough to enjoy what they condemned, enabled the plot to succeed. The lowest and falsest personalities were a trifle. Privacies were invaded, in a way to make the stoutest hearts tremble for the gentlest and most pitiable; and with an instinct common to the despicable, every delicacy was taken advantage of, that could secure impunity to offence. Even cowardice itself was avowed as a thing profitable. In short, never before was seen such a conspiracy between a reckless love of importance, cold calculation, and party and private resentment. Not being tied down by hard logic or Calvinism, the Scotch, it was said, were resolved to show how difficult it was for them to understand any other principle. Having no throats to cut as Jacobites or Puritans, they must run a muck as Drawcansirs in literature. Not being able to be Reevers of Westburn Flat, they were to plunder people of their characters, and warm the chill poverty of their imaginations at the blushes and distresses of private life. Unfortunately, some of the knaves were not destitute of talent: the younger were tools of older ones, who kept out of sight. * * * * * *

Sir Walter Scott calls this, I believe, a re-action in favour of legitimate ideas. Legitimate ideas are obliged to him for the compliment, and are very much his humble servants: but I doubt whether the Government of 1828 will agree with him, as the Pittites did; and a present Government is a great thing, as the Reviewers have found out. Your absent deity is nothing to your praesens divus.

The contrivers of this system of calumny thought that it suited their views, trading, political, and personal, to attack the writer of the present work. They did so, and his friends with him, Mr. Keats among the number. Had the hostility been fair, I was a fair object of attack, having not only taken a warm part in politics, but in a very thoughtless and immature spirit attacked people critically, Sir Walter among them. But then I did it openly: my books were not published without a name; and word was always left at the Examiner office, where I was to he found, in case explanation was demanded of any thing I wrote in the paper. I therefore treated these anonymous assailants with indifference in the first instance, and certainly should not have noticed them at all, had not another person chosen to call upon them in my name. Circumstances then induced me to make a more peremptory call: it was not answered; and the two parties retreated, they into their meanness, and I into my contempt. I have since regretted, on Mr. Keats's account, that I did not take a more active part. The scorn which the public and they would feel for one another, before long, was evident enough; but, in the mean time, till injury, in every point of view, was done to a young and sensitive nature, to which I ought to have been more alive. The truth was, I never thought about it; nor, I believe, did he, with a view to my taking any farther notice. I was in the habit, though a public man, of living in a world of abstractions of my own, and I regarded him as a nature still more abstracted, and sure of unsought renown. Though a politician, (such as I was,) I had scarcely a political work in my library. Spensers and Arabian Tales filled up the shelves, as they do now, and Spenser himself was not a remoter spirit in my eyes, from all the commonplaces of life, than my new friend. Our whole talk was made up of idealisms. In the streets we were in the thick of the old woods. I little suspected at that time, as I did afterwards, that the hunters had struck him; that a delicate organization, which already anticipated a premature death, made him feel his ambition thwarted by these fellows; and that the very impatience of being impatient was resented by him, and preyed on his mind. Had he said but a word to me on the subject, I would have kept no measures with them. There were delicacies on other subjects, which I had leave to merge in greater ones, had I chosen it; and, in a case like this, it should have been done.

In every thing but this reserve, which was encouraged by my own incuriousness, (for I have no reserve myself with those whom I love,) — in every other respect but this, Mr. Keats and I were friends of the old stamp, between whom there was no such thing as obligation, except the pleasure of it. He enjoyed the usual privilege of greatness with all whom he knew, rendering it delightful to be obliged by him, and all equal, but not a greater delight, to oblige. It was a pleasure to his friends to have him in their houses, and he did not grudge it. When Endymion was published, he was living at Hampstead with his friend Mr. Charles Brown, who attended him most affectionately through a severe illness, and with whom, to their great mutual enjoyment, he had taken a journey into Scotland. The lakes and mountains of the North delighted him exceedingly. He beheld them with an epic eye. Afterwards, he went into the South, and luxuriated in the Isle of Wight. On Mr. Brown's leaving England a second time, to visit the same quarter, Mr. Keats, who was too ill to accompany him, came to reside with me, when his last and best volume of poems appeared, containing Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St. Agnes, and the noble fragment of Hyperion. I remember Charles Lamb's delight and admiration on reading this work; how pleased he was with the designation of Mercury as "the star of Lethe" (rising, as it were, and glittering, as he came upon that pale region); with the fine daring anticipation in that passage of the second poem,—

So the two brothers and their murdered man
Rode past fair Florence;

and with the description, at once delicate and gorgeous, of Agnes praying beneath the painted window. This last (which should be called, par excellence, the Prayer at the Painted Window) has been often quoted; but for the benefit of those who are not yet acquainted with the author's genius, farther than by means of these pages, I cannot resist repeating it [omitted]. It throws a light upon one's book. The whole volume is worthy of this passage. Mr. Keats is no half painter, who has only distinct ideas occasionally, and fills up the rest with commonplaces. He feels all as he goes. In his best pieces, every bit is precious; and he knew it, and laid it on as carefully as Titian or Giorgione. Take a few more samples [omitted].

But I shall fill my book with quotations. A criticism, entering more into the nature of the author's genius, may be found by any one who wishes to see it, in The Indicator. One or two passages, however, in the fine lyrical pieces in this volume, must be noticed. One is on a sculptured vase, representing a procession with music; upon which the author says, with an intensity of sentiment, at once original in the idea, and going home, like an old thought, to the heart [quotation omitted].

Upon this beautiful passage, a sapient critic observed, that he should like to know how there could be music unheard. The reader will be more surprised to know who it was that asked what was the meaning, in the following ode, of a beaker, "full of the warm south." As Mr. Keats's poems are in few hands, compared to what they will be, I will not apologize for transcribing the whole of a beautiful poem, which in a very touching manner falls in with the poetical biography of the author, having been composed by him while he lay sleepless and suffering under the illness which he felt to be mortal [reprints Ode to a Nightingale].

It was Lord Byron, at that time living in Italy, drinking its wine, and basking in its sunshine, who asked me what was the meaning of a beaker "full of the warm south." It was not the word beaker that puzzled him. College had made him intimate enough with that. But the sort of poetry in which he excelled, was not accustomed to these poetical concentrations. At the moment also, he was willing to find fault, and did not wish to discern an excellence different from his own. When I told him, that Mr. Keats admired his Don Juan, he expressed both surprise and pleasure, and afterwards mentioned him with respect in a canto of it. He could not resist, however, making undue mention of one of the causes that affected his health. A good rhyme about particle and article was not to be given up. I told him he was mistaken in attributing Mr. Keats's death to the critics, though they had perhaps hastened, and certainly embittered it; and he promised to alter the passage: but a joke and a rhyme together! Those Italian shrugs of the shoulders, which I hope will never be imported among us, are at once a lamentation and an excuse for every thing; and I cannot help using one here. At all events, I have kept my promise, to make the erratum myself in case it did not appear.

Mr. Keats had felt that his disease was mortal for two or three years before he died. He had a constitutional tendency to consumption; a close attendance to the death-bed of a beloved brother, when he ought to have been nursing himself in bed, gave it a blow which he felt for months; and meanwhile the rascally critics came up, and roused an indignation in him, both against them and himself; which he could ill afford to endure. All this trouble was secretly aggravated by a very tender circumstance, which I can but allude to thus publicly, and which naturally subjected one of the warmest hearts and imaginations that ever existed, to all the pangs, that doubt, succeeded by delight, and delight, succeeded by hopelessness in this world, could inflict. Seeing him once change countenance in a manner more alarming than usual, as he stood silently eyeing the country out of window, I pressed him to let me know how he felt, in order that he might enable me to do what I could for him: upon which he said, that his feelings were almost more than he could bear, and that he feared for his senses. I proposed that we should take a coach, and ride about the country together, to vary, if possible, the immediate impression, which was sometimes all that was formidable, and would come to nothing. He acquiesced, and was restored to himself. It was nevertheless on the same day, sitting on the bench in Well Walk, at Hampstead, nearest the heath, that he told me, with unaccustomed tears in his eyes, that "his heart was breaking." A doubt, however, was upon him at the time, which he afterwards had reason to know was groundless; and during his residence at the last house that he occupied before he went abroad, he was at times more than tranquil. At length, he was persuaded by his friends to try the milder climate of Italy; and he thought it better for others as well as himself that he should go. He was accompanied by Mr. Severn, a young artist of great promise, who has since been well known as the principal English student at Rome, and who possessed all that could recommend him for a companion, — old acquaintanceship, great animal spirits, active tenderness, and a mind capable of appreciating that of the poet. They went first to Naples, and afterwards to Rome; where, on the 27th of December, 1820, our author died in the arms of his friend, completely worn out, and longing for the release. He suffered so much in his lingering, that he used to watch the countenance of the physician for the favourable and fatal sentence, and express his regret when be found it delayed. Yet no impatience escaped him. He was manly and gentle to the last, and grateful for all services. A little before he died, he said that he "felt the daisies growing over him." But he made a still more touching remark respecting his epitaph. "If any," he said, "were put over him, he wished it to consist of nothing but these words: "Here lies one, whose name was writ in water:'" — so little did he think of the more than promise he had given; — of the fine and lasting things he had added to the stock of poetry. The physicians expressed their astonishment that he had held out so long, the lungs turning out, on inspection, to have been almost obliterated. They said he must have lived upon the mere strength of the spirit within him. He was interred in the English burying-ground at Rome, near the monument of Caius Cestius, where his friend and poetical mourner, Mr. Shelley, was shortly to join him.

So much for the mortal life of as true a man of genius as these latter times have seen; one of those who are too genuine and too original to be properly appreciated at first, but whose time for applause will infallibly arrive with the many, and has already begun in all poetical quarters. I venture to prophesy, as I have done elsewhere, that Mr. Keats will be known hereafter in English literature, emphatically, as the Young Poet; and that his volumes will be the sure companions, in field and grove, of all those who know what a luxury it is to hasten, with a favourite volume against one's heart, out of the strife of commonplaces into the haven of solitude and imagination.