1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Keats

Cyrus Redding, "Memoir of John Keats" Poetical Works of Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats (1829) v-vii.



The short career of John KEATS was marked by the development of powers which have been rarely exhibited in one at so immatured an age. He had but just completed his twenty-fourth year when he was snatched away from the world, and an end put for ever to a genius of a lofty and novel order. Certain party critics, who made it their object to lacerate the feelings, and endeavour to put down by vituperation and misplaced ridicule every effort which emanated not from their own servile dependents or followers, furiously attacked the writings of Keats on their appearance. Their promise of greater excellence was unquestionable, their beauties were obvious, — but so also were defects, which might easily be made available for an attack upon the author; and which certain writers of the Quarterly Review instantly seized upon to gratify party malice, — not against the author so much as against his friends. The unmerited abuse poured upon Keats by this periodical work is supposed to have hastened his end, which was slowly approaching when the criticism before-mentioned appeared.

This original and singular example of poetical genius was of humble descent, and was born in Moorfields, London, October 29, 1796, at a livery stables which had belonged to his grandfather. He received a classical education at Enfield, under a Mr. Clarke, and was apprenticed to Mr. Hammond, a surgeon at Edmonton. The son of his schoolmaster Clarke encouraged the first germs of the poetical faculty which he early observed in the young poet, and introduced him to Mr. Leigh Hunt, who is reported to have been the means of his introduction to the public. Keats was an individual of extreme sensitiveness, so that he would betray emotion even to tears on hearing a noble action recited, or at the mention of a glowing thought or one of deep pathos: yet both his moral and personal courage were above all suspicion. His health was always delicate, for he had been a seven months child and it appears that the symptoms of premature decay, or rather of fragile vitality, were long indicated by his organization, before consumption decidedly displayed itself.

The juvenile productions of Keats were published in 1817, the author being at that time in his twenty-first year. His favourite sojourn appears to have been Hampstead, the localities of which village were the scenes of his earliest abstractions, and the prompters of many of his best poetical productions: most of his personal friends, too, resided in the neighbourhood. His first published volume, though the greater part of it was not above mediocrity, contained passages and lines of rare beauty. This political sentiments differing from those of the Quarterly Review, being manly and independent, were sins never to be forgiven; and as in that party work literary judgment was always dealt out according to political congeniality of feeling, with the known servility of its writers, an author like Keats had no chance of being judged fairly. He was friendless and unknown, and could not even attract notice to a just complaint if he appealed to the public, from his being yet obscure as an author. This Gifford, the editor of the Quarterly, well knew, and poured his malignity upon his unoffending victim in proportion as he was conscious of the want of power in the object of his attack to resist it. A scion of nobility might have scribbled nonsense and been certain of applause; but a singular genius springing up by its own vitality in an obscure corner, was by all means to be crushed. — Gifford had been a cobbler, and the son of the livery-stable-keeper was not worthy of his critical toleration! Thus it always is with those narrow-minded persons who rise by the force of accident from vulgar obscurity: they cannot tolerate a brother, much less superior power or genius in that brother. On the publication of Keats's next work, Endymion, Gifford attacked it with all the bitterness of which his pen was capable, and did not hesitate, before he saw the work, to announce his intention of doing so to the publisher. Keats had endeavoured, as much as was consistent with independent feeling, to conciliate the critics at large, as maybe observed in his preface to that poem. He merited to be treated with indulgence, not wounded by the envenomed shafts of political animosity for literary errors. His book abounded in passages of true poetry, which were of course passed over; and it is difficult to decide whether the cowardice or the cruelty of the attack upon it, most deserve execration. Of great sensitiveness, as already observed, and his frame already touched by a mortal distemper, he felt his hopes withered, and his attempts to obtain honourable public notice in his own scantily allotted days frustrated. He was never to see his honourable fame: this preyed upon his spirit and hastened his end, as has been already noticed. The third and last of his works was the little volume (his best work) containing a Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Hyperion. — That he was not a finished writer, must be conceded; that, like Koerner in Germany, he gave rich promise rather than matured fruit, may be granted; but they must indeed he ill judges of genius who are not delighted with what he left, and do not see that, had he lived, he might have worn a wreath of renown which time would not easily have withered. His was indeed an "untoward fate," as Byron observes of him in the eleventh canto of a Don Juan."

For several years before his death, Keats had felt that the disease which preyed upon him was mortal, — that the agents of decay were at work upon a body too imperfectly organized, or too feebly constructed to sustain long the fire of existence. He had neglected his own health to attend a brother on his death-bed, when it would have been far more prudent that he had recollected it was necessary he should take care of himself. Under the bereavement of this brother he was combating his keen feelings, when the Zoilus of the Quarterly so ferociously attacked him. The excitement of spirit was too much for his frame to sustain; and a blow from another quarter, coming about the same time, shook him so much, that he told a friend with tears "his heart was breaking." — He was now persuaded to try the climate of Italy, the refuge of those who have no more to hope for in their own; but which is commonly delayed until the removal only leads the traveller to the tomb. Thither he went to die. He was accompanied by Mr. Severn, an artist of considerable talent, well known since in Rome. Mr. Severn was a valuable and attached friend of the poet; and they went first to Naples, and thence journeyed to Rome, — where Keats closed his eyes on the world on the 24th of February, 1821. He wished ardently for death before it came. The springs of vitality were left nearly dry long before his lingering as he did astonished his medical attendants. His sufferings were great, but he was all resignation. He said, not long before he died, that he "felt the flowers growing over him."

On the examination of his body, post mortem, by his physicians, they found that life rarely so long tenanted a body shattered as his was: his lungs were well-nigh annihilated. — His remains were deposited in the cemetery of the Protestants at Rome, at the foot of the pyramid of Caius Cestius, near the Porta San Paolo, where a white marble tombstone, hearing the following inscription, surmounted by a lyre in basso relievo, has been erected to his memory:—

This Grave
contains all that was mortal
of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET,
who,
on his death-bed,
in the bitterness of his heart
at the malicious power of his enemies,
desired these words to be engraved on his tombstone —
HERE LIES ONE
WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER.
Feb. 24th, 1821.

The physiognomy of the young poet indicated his character. Sensibility was predominant, but there was no deficiency of power. His features were well-defined, and delicately susceptible of every impression. His eyes were large and dark, but his cheeks were sunk, and his face pale when he was tranquil. His hair was of a brown colour, and curled naturally. His head was small, and set upon broad high shoulders, and a body disproportionately large to his lower limbs, which, however, were well-made. His stature was low; and his hands, says a friend (Mr. L. Hunt), were faded, having prominent veins — which he would look upon, and pronounce to belong to one who had seen fifty years. His temper was of the gentlest description, and he felt deeply all favours conferred upon him: in fact, he was one of those marked and rare characters which genius stamps from their birth in her own mould; and whose early consignment to the tomb has, it is most probable, deprived the world of works calculated to delight, if not to astonish mankind — of productions to which every congenial spirit and kind quality of the human heart would have done homage, and confessed the power. It is to be lamented that such promise should have been so prematurely blighted.

Scattered through the writings of Keats will be found passages which come home to every bosom alive to each nobler and kindlier feeling of the human heart. There is much in them to be corrected, much to he altered for the better; but there are sparkling gems of the first lustre every where to be found. It is strange, that in civilized societies writings should be judged of, not by their merits, but by the faction to which their author belongs, though their production may be solely confined to subjects the most remote from controversy. In England, a party-man must yield up every thing to the opinions and dogmatism of his caste. He must reject truths, pervert reason, misrepresent all things coming from an opponent of another creed in religion or politics. Such a state of virulent and lamentable narrow-mindedness, is the most certain that can exist for blighting the tender blossoms of genius, and blasting the innocent and virtuous hopes of the young aspirant after honest fame. It is not necessary that a young and ardent mind avow principles hostile to those who set up for its enemies — if he be but the friend of a friend openly opposed to them, it is enough; and the worst is, that the hostility displayed is neither limited by truth and candour, sound principles of criticism, humanity, or honourable feeling: it fights with all weapons, in the dark or in the light, by craft, or in any mode to obtain its hitter objects. The critics who hastened the end of Keats, had his works been set before them as being those of an unknown writer, would have acknowledged their talent, and applauded where it was due, for their attacks upon him were not made from lack of judgment, but from wilful hostility. One knows not how to characterise such demoniacal insincerity. Keats belonged to a school of politics which they from their ambush anathematized: — hence, and hence alone, their malice towards him.

Keats was, as a poet, like a rich fruit-tree which the gardener has not pruned of its luxuriance: time, had it been allotted him by Heaven, would have seen it as trim and rich as any brother of the garden. It is and will ever he regretted by the readers of his works, that he lingered no longer among living men, to bring to perfection what he meditated, to contribute to British literature a greater name, and to delight the lovers of true poetry with the rich melody of his musically embodied thoughts.