John Keats

William Howitt, "John Keats" Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets (1847) 1:423-35.

Where is the youth for deeds immortal born,
Who loved to whisper to the embattled corn,
And clustered woodbines, breathing o'er the stream,
Endymion's beauteous passion for a dream!
Why did he drop the harp from fingers cold,
And sleep so soon with demigods of old!
Oh, who so well could sing Love's joys and pains?
He lived in melody, as if his veins
Poured music; from his lips came words of fire,
The voice of Greece, the tones of Homer's lyre.
Ebenezer Elliott.

We come now to one whose home and haunts on the earth were brief, — "Who sparkled, was exhaled, and went to Heaven." John Keats was one of those sweet and glorious spirits who descend like the angel messengers of old, to discharge some divine command, not to dwell here. Pure, ethereal, glowing with the fervency of inward life, the bodily vehicle appears but assumed for the occasion, and as a mist, as a shadow, is ready to dissolve the instant that occasion is served. They speak and pass away into the higher light from whence they came; but their words remain — themselves life, and spirit, and power — like the electric element in the veins of the earth, quickening and vitalizing the souls of men to the end of time. They become part and parcel of our nature; they are as essential to the aliment and the progress of our intellectual being, as the light, the morning dew of summer, the morning and the evening star, or any of those great components of nature, the sky, the sea, or the mountain, from which we draw the daily spirit of beauty; and live! — live, not as mere material machines; not as animal existences, as brutes—

Which graze the mountain top with faces prone,
And eyes intent upon the scanty herb
It yields them; or, recumbent on its brow,
Ruminate heedless of the scene outspread
Beneath, beyond, and stretching far away
From inland regions to the distant main; — Cowper.

not mere men of the world, money-getting, house-building, land-purchasing creatures, but souls of God and of eternity. "Man lives not by bread alone, but by every word which proceeds out of the mouth of God," and which descends to earth by his prophets, whether of prose or of poetry. It is by the mediation of such pure and seraphic intelligences, that our true psychological frame and constitution are built up. For, created to take our places in the great future of the universe, amid the spiritual revelation of all things spiritual, we must be raised substantially from the mere germ of immortality within us into "spirits of just men made perfect." We must be composed of the spiritual elements of beauty, thought, sensation and seizure of all intellectual things, growing by the daily absorption of divine essences into spiritual bodies, incorporate of love, of light, of lofty aspirations and tenderest desires; of thoughts that comprehend the world, and hearts that embrace it with a divine capacity of affection. As we walk on our daily way, and along the muddiest paths of life, amid our own cares and loneliness, we do not and cannot walk unblest. The shower of God's benedictions falls on us; the sunshine of his ceaseless gifts surrounds us. From his own appointed men, whether living or dead, "the refreshments from his presence" reach us, melt into us, and sustain us. Words spoken thousands of years ago, steal, like the whisper of a breeze, into our bosoms, and become bright guests there; music, full of deep movings, heard but yesterday from the lips of the inspired, touches the spring of happiness within us. The thoughts and sentiments of poets and philosophers, "beautiful exceedingly," stand around us like the trees and the flowers of our wayside; and from every point of heaven and earth are reflected upon us the flowing waters, the cool forest shades, the bright and glittering stars of that mind, which has been poured through a myriad of vehicles and a host of ages, down upon us here. The light and colour and warmth which mature our very corn and fruits, come from the sun. They are no more inherent in this nether earth, than our own life is. All that we have and enjoy must come from other worlds to us. Our material aliments are sustained by the strength and life issuing from the infinite heavens; and thence too descend, in still more ethereal actuality, all that our souls are made of.

Of the class of swift but resplendent messengers by whom these ministrations are performed, neither ours nor any other history can furnish a specimen more beautiful than John Keats. He was of feeling and "imagination all compact." His nature was one pure mass of the living light of poetry. On this world and its concerns he could take no hold, and they could take none on him. The worldly and the worldly wise could not comprehend him, could not sympathize with him. To them his vivid orgasm of the intellect was madness; his exuberance of celestial gifts was extravagance; his unworldliness was effeminacy; his love of the universal man, and not of gross distinctions of pride and party, was treason. As of the highest and divinest of God's messengers to earth, they cried "Away with him, he is not fit to live;" and the body, that mere mist-like, that mere shadow-like body, already failing before the fervency of his spiritual functions, fell, "faded away, dissolved," and disappeared before the bitter frost-wind of base criticism.

It was a dark and wretched time when Keats made his appearance amongst us. War, and party, and peculation on the one side, and resentment and discontent on the other; the necessity for the gainer maintaining his craft at all costs, and the equal necessity for the loser dragging this ruinous craft to the ground, had infused into literature an atrocious spirit. From this foul spirit, genius, in every fresh incarnation, suffered the most ruthless and inhuman assaults. The stronger possessor of it stood; the weaker or more sensitive fell. Keats was one of the latter. He had soul enough for anything, but his physique was feeble, and sunk. It will be one of the "damning spots" which will for ever cling, not to the country, but to the age. But it is to the everlasting honour of Leigh Hunt, that, himself a critic as well as a poet, he never dipped his hand in the blood of the innocents. He never slew one of those martyrs whose glorious tombs we now build with adamantine stones of admiration, tempering the cement with the tears of our love. Himself assailed, and shot at, and cruelly wounded by the archers, he not only turned and manfully defended himself, but spread the shield of his heart to protect those who were rising up to become formidable rivals in the public regard. Will the country ever show to this generous man, and in time, that warm-heartedness which he always showed to its sons of genius in their unfolding hours? It is a glory that is peculiar, and peculiarly beautiful, that amid that iron age of a murderous criticism, he was for ever found in close union and communion with the morning stars of poetry. They truly "sang together." They seemed by an instinct of life to flock to him, and by an instinct equally sure and unselfish, he felt at once their claims, and with open hand and heart maintained them. It was in the pages of the Examiner, that, amid specimens of young poets, I first made acquaintance with the magnificent sonnet of Keats on reading Chapman's Homer, and with Shelley's Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. From that hour there could be no moment's question, but that great men were come amongst us; those men who, in fact, "turn the world upside down," and by which turning upside down, the only process, the asps and scorpions of malice are shook out of it, and all its strong-rooted fabrics of prejudice and pride are toppled into the dust. Till death, the souls of these men, who never ceased to maintain that brave union thus begun, but "Learned in suffering what they taught in song," amid abuse, misrepresentation, and the vilest onslaughts from the army of the aliens, went on blessing the world with those emanations of splendid and unshackled thought, which are now recognised as amongst the most precious of the national property. Who in future days will not pray that he might have been as one of these?

It is to the account by Leigh Hunt, in his Byron and some of his Contemporaries, that we owe almost all that we know of the life and haunts of Keats. From this we learn that "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 proprietor. 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 weak enough to be moved by them. Mr. Clarke, jun., 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."

Mr. Hunt, in his warm-hearted way, lost no time in introducing his poetry to the best judges of poetry, amongst them to Godwin, Hazlitt, Basil Montagu, Charles Lamb, and others. He read to them, amongst others, that fine sonnet already mentioned, which, as it is printed in a volume now not much seen, cannot too often be quoted.

Much have I travelled in the land 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 have I been told,
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet I did 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 stared at the Pacific — and all his men
Looked at each other in a wild surprise,
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

The two poets became speedily familiar and almost inseparable. They read, walked, and talked together continually, and Mr. Hunt gives us various particulars of Keats's haunts at this period, which are nowhere else to be obtained. "The volume containing the above sonnet," he says, "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 to 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, be 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 frequently, 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 Poet's-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." Mr. Hunt was at this time living at Hampstead, in the Vale of Health, and the house at which it is said Keats wrote the beautiful poem on Sleep and Poetry was his. There is another fact in this account that deserves attention, and that is, the date of the publication of Keats's first small volume. This was 1817; in 1818 he published his Endymion; on the 26th of June, 1820, his third volume, Lamia and other Poems, was published; and on the 27th of December of the same year he died at Rome. Thus the whole of his poetical life, from the issue of his first small volume to his death, was but about three years. During the greater part of that period he felt his disease, consumption, was mortal. Yet what progress in the development of his powers, and the maturing of his judgment and feeling of art!, was manifested in that short space and under those circumstances! The first volume was a volume of immature fancies and unsettled style, but with things which denoted the glorious dawn of a short but illustrious day. The Endymion had much extravagance. It was a poetical effervescence. The mind of the writer was haunted by crowds of imaginations, and scenes of wonder, and dreams of beauty, chiefly from the old mythological world, but mingled with the passion for living nature, and the warmest feelings of youth. It brought forward the deities of Greece, and invested them with the passions and tenderness of men, and all the youthful glow which then reigned in the poet's heart. The mind was boiling over from intense heat, but amid the luscious foam rose streams of the richest wine of poetry which ever came from the vintage of this world. The next volume, Lamia, Isabella, etc. showed how the heady liquor had cleared itself, and become spirit bright and strong. There was an aim, a settled plan and purpose, in each composition, and a steady power of judgment growing up amid all the vivid impulses of the brain that still remained vivid as ever. The style was wonderfully condensed, and the descriptive as well as conceptive faculty, had assumed a vigour and acumen which was not, and is not, and probably never will be, surpassed by any other poet. For proofs to justify these high terms, it is only necessary to open the little volume, and open it almost anywhere. How powerful and tender is the narrative of Isabella: how rich and gorgeous and chaste and well weighed is the whole of St. Agnes' Eve: how full of the soul of poetry is The Ode to the Nightingale. Perhaps there is no poet, living or dead, except Shakspeare, who can pretend to anything like the felicity of epithet which characterizes Keats. One word or phrase is the essence of a whole description or sentiment. It is like the dull substance of the earth struck through by electric fires and converted into veins of gold and diamonds. For a piece of perfect and inventive description, that passage from Lamia, where, Lycius gone to bid the guests to his wedding, Lamia in her uneasy excitement employs herself and her demon powers in adorning her palace, is unrivalled.

It was the custom then to bring away
The bride from home at blushing shut of day,
Veiled, in a chariot, heralded along
By strewn flowers, torches, and a marriage song,
With other pageants; but this fair unknown
Had not a friend. So being left alone—
Lycius was gone to summon all his kin—
And knowing surely she could never win
His foolish heart from its most pompousness,
She set herself, high-thoughted, how to dress
The misery in fit magnificence.
She did so; but 'tis doubtful how and whence
Came, and who were her subtle servitors.
About the halls, and to and from the doors,
There was a noise of wings, till in short space
The glaring banquet-room shone with wide-arched grace.
A haunting music, sole, perhaps, and lone
Supportress of the fairy roof, made moan
Throughout, as fearful the whole charm might fade.
Fresh carved cedar mimicking a glade
Of palm and plantain, sent from either side
High in the midst, in honour of the bride,
Two palms, and then two plantains, and so on,
From either side their stems branched one to one
All down the aisled place; and beneath all
There ran a stream of lamps straight on from wall to wall.
So canopied lay an untasted feast
Teeming with odours. Lamia, regal drest,
Silently paced about, and as she went,
In pale contented silent discontent,
Missioned her viewless servants to enrich
The fretted splendour of each nook and niche:
Between the tree-stems, marbled plain at first,
Came jasper panels; then, anon there burst
Forth creeping imagery of slighter trees,
And with the larger wove in small intricacies.
Approving all, she faded at self-will,
And shut the chamber up, close, hushed, and still,
Complete and ready for the revels rude,
When dreadful guests would come to spoil her solitude.

The description of Lamia undergoing the metamorphosis by which she escaped from the form of a serpent to that of a beautiful woman, is marvellous for its power and precision of language.

Left to herself, the serpent now began
To change: her elfin blood in madness ran,
Her mouth foamed, and the grass, therewith bespent,
Withered with dew so sweet and virulent.
Her eyes in torture fixed, and anguish drear,
Hot, glazed, and wide, with lid-lashes all sear,
Flashed phosphor and sharp sparks, without one cooling tear.
The colours all inflamed throughout her train,
She writhed about convoked with scarlet pain:
A deep, volcanian yellow took the place
Of all her milder mooned body's grace;
And as the lava ravishes the mead,
Spoilt all her silver mail, and golden brede;
Made gloom of all her frecklings, streaks, and bars,
Eclipsed her crescents, and licked tip her stars:
So that in moments few she was undrest
Of all her sapphires, gems, and amethyst,
And rubious argent; of all these bereft,
Nothing but pain and ugliness was left.
Still shone her crown; that vanished, also she
Melted and disappeared as suddenly;
And in the air her now voice luting soft
Cried "Lycius, gentle Lycius!" — Borne aloft
With the bright mists about the mountains hoar
Those words dissolved: Crete's forest heard no more.

The most magnificent trophy of his genius, however, is the fragment of Hyperion. On this poem, which has something vast, colossal, and dreamy about if, giving you a conception of the unfoldings of an almost infinite scope of "the vision and the faculty divine" in this extraordinary youth, he was employed when the progress of his complaint, and the savage treatment of the critics, sunk his heart, and he abandoned the task, and went forth to die. How touching under the circumstances is the short preface affixed to this volume by the publishers. — "If any apology he thought necessary for the appearance of the unfinished poem of HYPERION, the publishers beg to state that they alone are responsible, as it was printed at their particular request, and contrary to the wish of the author. The poem was intended to have been of equal length with ENDYMION, but the reception given to that work discouraged the author from proceeding." Can a critic even read the passage without some compunction? and who shall again repeat the stale sophism that unkind criticism never extinguished genuine poetry?

Mr. Hunt says of Keats, that "he enjoyed the usual privileges of greatness with all whom he knew, rendering it delightful to be obliged by him, and an equal, but not a greater, to oblige. It was a pleasure to his friends to have him in their houses, and he did not grudge it."

He was sometimes a regular inmate with Mr. Hunt at Kentish town, and used to ramble about the sweet walks of Hampstead and Highgate to his heart's content. "When Endymion was published, he was living at Hampstead with his friend Charles Brown, who attended him most affectionately through a long and 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 hint exceedingly. He beheld them with an epic eye. Afterwards he went into the South, and luxuriated in the Isle of Wight." He was, too, down in Devonshire. The preface to his Endymion is dated from Teignmouth. On Mr. Brown's leaving England a second time, "Mr. Keats," says Leigh Hunt, "was too ill to accompany him, and 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 when 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 must have been immediately before the young poet quitted England in the vain quest of health. There is a very affecting passage in Mr. Hunt's brief memoir of him, which shows what was the state of mind of this fine young poet at this crisis. The hunter had stricken him, death was dealing with him, and the pain of affections unassured of a return was helping his other enemies to pull him down. "Seeing him once," says Mr. Hunt, "change countenance in a manner more alarming than usual, as he stood silently eyeing the country out of the 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 that 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."

His house, it appears, was in Wentworth-place, Downshire-hill, Hampstead, by Pond-street, and at the next door lived the young lady to whom he was engaged. Mr. Hunt accompanied Keats and thus young lady to the place of embarkation in a coach, and saw them part. It was a most trying moment. Neither of them entertained a hope to see each other again in life, yet each endeavoured to subdue the feelings of such a moment to the retention of outward composure. Keats was accompanied on his voyage by that excellent artist, Mr. Severn, and who, to quote again the same competent authority, possessed all that could recommend him for a companion; — old acquaintanceship, great animal spirits, active tenderness, and a mind capable of appreciating that of a poet. They first went to Naples, and afterwards to Rome, where they occupied the same house, at the corner of the Piazza di Spagna. Mr. Severn made several sketches of Keats, both on the voyage and at Rome, and while there finished a portrait of him for Mr., now Lord, Jeffery, who had spoken handsomely of him in the Edinburgh Review. At Rome, on the 27th of December, 1820, as already stated, John Keats died in the arms of his friend, completely worn out and longing for release. How the circumstance of this life-weariness reminds its of his longing for death in his inimitable Ode to the Nightingale!

Oh for a draught of vintage that hath been
Cooled a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green;
Dance and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!
Oh for a beaker full of the warm south,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth!
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim;—

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret,
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs;
Where youth glows pale, and spectre thin, and dies;
Where still to think is to be full of sorrow,
And leaden-eyed despairs:
Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new love pine at them beyond to morrow.

"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,' said he, 'were put over him, he wished it to consist of nothing but these words: — There lies one whose name was writ in water;' — so little did he think of the more than promise he had given; if 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."

Such is the brief but deeply interesting account of John Keats, drawn mostly from the written narrative, and partly from the conversation of his true friend and fellow-poet. It is not possible to close it in more just or appropriate words than those of this admiring but discriminating friend: — "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."