1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Keats

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 120.



JOHN KEATS, one of the most poetical of Poets, and therefore by nature one of the most refined of men, was of the humblest origin, having been born, October the 29th, 1796, at a livery-stable in Moorfields, which belonged to his family. He received the rudiments of a classical education at the school of Mr. Clarke, at Enfield, where, in the person of the master's son, Mr. Charles Cowden Clarke, the editor of the Riches of Chaucer, he had the luck of finding a friend possessed of discernment enough to see his genius, and warm-heartedness to encourage it. He was afterwards apprenticed to a surgeon and apothecary; but inheriting a small independence (which, however, he used in the most generous manner), he did not stop long with him, but devoted himself entirely to poetry. Mr. Clarke introduced him to Mr. Leigh Hunt, and Mr. Leigh Hunt, through the medium of the Examiner, to the public, — which introduction, while it procured instant recognition of his genius, attracted towards him, in consequence of the party-politics then raging, the hostility of the critics on the opposite side, who paid him the unhappy compliment of being unusually bitter and ungenerous. The result was, not his death, as some have supposed, — but undoubtedly an embitterment of the causes which were then leading to it, and which originated in a consumptive tendency. Mr. Keats left England in the year 1820, to try the warmer climate of Italy, and, on the 24th of February, in the year following, died at Rome in the arms of his friend, Mr. Severn, the artist, who had accompanied him on the voyage, and attended his bedside like a brother. Mr. Shelley, who loved him, and who enthusiastically admired his genius (as he has evinced in the beautiful elegy, entitled "Adonis"), invited him to come and take up his abode with himself; and he would have done so, had life been spared him. But fate had disposed otherwise; and the ashes of his inviter, no great while afterwards, went to take up their own abode in the same burial-ground. His death was embittered by a passion he had for a young lady, who returned his affection; but, amidst all his sufferings, his love of poetical beauty did not forsake him. He said, in anticipation of his grave, that he already "felt the daisies growing over him." He requested, however, in the anguish of disappointed hope, that his friends would inscribe upon his tomb, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water;" and they did so.

Mr. Keats was under the middle size, and somewhat large above, in proportion to his lower limbs, — which, however, were neatly formed; and he had any thing in his dress and general demeanour but that appearance of "laxity," which has been strangely attributed to him in a late publication. In fact, he had so much of the reverse, though, in no unbecoming degree, that he might be supposed to maintain a certain jealous care of the appearance and bearing of a gentleman, in the consciousness of his genius, and perhaps not without some sense of his origin. His face was handsome and sensitive, with a look in the eyes at once earnest and tender; and his hair grew in delicate brown ringlets, of remarkable beauty.

Mr. Keats may truly he pronounced a Poet of the most poetical order, for he gave himself up entirely to the beautiful, and had powers of expression equal to an excess of sensibility. His earlier poems, especially the Endymion, are like a luxuriant wilderness of flowers and weeds ("weeds of glorious feature"); his latest, the Hyperion, was a growing wood of oaks, from which the deepest oracles of the art might have been looked for. Indeed, there they were, as far as he gave his thoughts utterance. It has been justly said, that he is "the greatest YOUNG Poet that ever appeared in the language;" that is to say, the greatest who did not live to be old, and whose whole memory will be identified with something both young and great. His lyrics (the Odes to the Nightingale and the Grecian Vase) are equal to the very finest we possess, both for subtle feeling and music. His Eve of St. Agnes, is as full of beauty as the famous painted window he describes in it; and there was such a profusion in him of fancies and imaginations, analogous to the beautiful forms of the genius of the ancient Poets, that a university-man expressed his astonishment at hearing he was not a Greek scholar. Of our lately deceased Poets, if you want imaginative satire, or bitter wailing, you must go to the writings of Lord Byron; if a thoughtful, dulect, and wild dreaminess, you must go to Coleridge; if a startling appeal to the first elements of your nature and sympathies (most musical also), to Shelley; if a thorough enjoyment of the beautiful — for beauty's sake — like a walk on a summer's noon in a land of woods and meadows you must embower yourself in the luxuries of Keats.