1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Keats

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:402-04.



JOHN KEATS was born in London, October 29, 1796, in the house of his grandfather, who kept a livery stable at Moorfields. He received his education at Enfield, and in his fifteenth year was apprenticed to a surgeon. Most of his time, however, was devoted to the cultivation of his literary talents, which were early conspicuous. During his apprenticeship, he made and carefully wrote out a literal translation of Virgil's Aeneid, and instructed himself also in some knowledge of Greek and Italian. One of his earliest friends and critics was Mr. Leigh Hunt, who, being shown some of his poetical pieces, was struck, he says, with the exuberant specimens of genuine though young poetry that were laid before him, and the promise of which was seconded by the fine fervid countenance of the writer. In 1818 Keats published his Endymion, a Poetic Romance, defective in many parts, but evincing rich though undisciplined powers of imagination. The poem was criticised, in a strain of contemptuous severity, by the Quarterly Review; and such was the sensitiveness of the young poet — panting for distinction, and flattered by a few private friends — that the critique embittered his existence, and induced a fatal disease. "The first effects," says Shelley, "are described to me to have resembled insanity, and it was by assiduous watching that he was restrained from effecting purposes of suicide. The agony of his sufferings at length produced the rupture of a blood-vessel in the lungs, and the usual process of consumption appears to have begun." The process had begun, as was too soon apparent; but Keats continued his studies, and in 1820 brought out his second volume — Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and other Poems. These falling into the hands of Jeffrey, were criticised in the Edinburgh Review in a spirit of kindliness and just appreciation, which must have soothed the wounded feelings of the poet, and, with an author of a more healthy and robust frame, would have amply atoned for the previous injustice that had been done him. "Mr. Keats," says the eloquent critic, "is, we understand, still a very young man; and his whole works, indeed, bear evidence enough of the fact. They manifestly require, therefore, all the indulgence that can be claimed for a first attempt; but we think it no less plain that they deserve it; for they are flushed all over with the rich lights of fancy, and so coloured and bestrown with the flowers of poetry, that, even while perplexed and bewildered in their labyrinths, it is impossible to resist the intoxication of their sweetness, or to shut our hearts to the enchantments they so lavishly present. The models upon which he has formed himself in the Endymion, the earliest and by much the most considerable of his poems, are obviously the Faithful Shepherdess of Fletcher, and the Sad Shepherd of Ben Jonson, the exquisite metres and inspired diction of which he has copied with great boldness and fidelity; and, like his great originals, has also contrived to impart to the whole piece that true rural and poetical air which breathes only in them and in Theocritus — which is at once homely and majestic, luxurious and rude, and sets before us the genuine sights, and sounds, and smells of the country, with all the magic and grace of Elysium. His subject has the disadvantage of being mythological; and in this respect, as well as on account of the raised and rapturous tone it consequently assumes, his poetry may be better compared perhaps to the Comus and the Arcades of Milton, of which, also, there are many traces of imitation. The great distinction, however, between him and these divine authors is, that imagination in them is subordinate to reason and judgment, while, with him, it is paramount and supreme; that their ornaments and images are employed to embellish and recommend just sentiments, engaging incidents, and natural characters, while his are poured out without measure or restraint, and with no apparent design but to unburden the breast of the author, and give vent to the overflowing vein of his fancy. There is no work from which a malicious critic could cull more matter for ridicule, or select more obscure, unnatural, or absurd passages. But we do not take that to be our office; and just beg leave, on the contrary, to say, that any one who, on this account, would represent the whole poem as despicable, must either have no notion of poetry or no regard to truth." The readers of poetry confirmed this judgment; but their verdict, however grateful, came too late to save the poet. He was now far gone in consumption. As a last resource, he resolved to try the milder climate of Italy — going first to Naples, and from thence to Rome. "He suffered so much in his lingering," says Mr. Leigh Hunt, "that he used to watch the countenance of his physician for the favourable and fatal sentence, and express his regret when he 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." He died on the 27th of December 1820, and was buried, as his friend Shelley relates, "in the romantic and lonely cemetery of the Protestants in that city, under the pyramid which is the tomb of Cestius, and the massy walls and towers, now mouldering and desolate, which formed the circuit of ancient Rome. The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place."

It was the misfortune of Keats, as a poet, to be either extravagantly praised or unmercifully condemned. The former was owing to the generous partialities of friendship, somewhat obtrusively displayed; the latter, in some degree, to resentment of that friendship, connected as it was with party polities and peculiar views of society as well as of poetry. In the one case his faults, and in the other his merits, were entirely overlooked. An interval of more than twenty years should have dispelled these illusions and prejudices. Keats was a true poet: he had the creative fancy, the ideal enthusiasm, and the nervous susceptibility of the poetical temperament. If we consider his extreme youth and delicate health, his solitary and interesting self-instruction, the severity of the attacks made upon him by his hostile and powerful critics, and, above all, the original richness and picturesqueness of his conceptions and imagery, even when they run to waste, he appears to be one of the greatest of the young self-taught poets. Michael Bruce or Henry Kirke White cannot for a moment be compared with him: he is more like the Milton of Lycidas, or the Spenser of the Tears of the Muses. What easy, finished, statuesque beauty and classic expression, for example, are displayed in this picture of Saturn and Thea!—

[SATURN AND THEA.]
[FROM HYPERION.]
Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon, and eve's one star,
Sat gray-haired Saturn, quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair
Forest on forest hung about his head
Like cloud on cloud. No stir of air was there,
Not so much life as on a summer's day
Robs one light seed from the feathered grass,
But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.
A stream went voiceless by, still deadened more
By reason of his fallen divinity
Spreading a shade: the Naiad 'mid her reeds
Pressed her cold finger closer to her lips.

Along the margin sand large footmarks went
No further than to where his feet had strayed,
And slept there since. Upon the sodden ground
His old right hand lay nerveless, listless, dead,
Unsceptred; and his realmless eyes were closed
While his bowed head seemed listening to the earth,
His ancient mother, for some comfort yet.

It seemed no force could wake him from his place;
But there came one, who with a kindred hand
Touched his wide shoulders, after bending low
With reverence, though to one who knew it not.
She was a goddess of the infant world;
By her in stature the tall Amazon
Had stood a pigmy's height: she would have ta'en
Achilles by the hair, and bent his neck;
Or with a finger stayed Ixion's wheel.
Her face was large as that of Memphian sphinx
Pedestaled haply in a palace court,
When sages looked to Egypt for their lore.
But oh! how unlike marble was that face!
How beautiful, if sorrow had not made
Sorrow more beautiful than Beauty's self!
There was a listening fear in her regard,
As if calamity had but begun;
As if the vanward clouds of evil days
Had spent their malice, and the sullen rear
Was, with its stored thunder, labouring up.
One hand she pressed upon that aching spot
Where beats the human heart, as if just there,
Though an immortal, she felt cruel pain;
The other upon Saturn's bended neck
She laid, and to the level of his ear
Leaning with parted lips, some words she spake
In solemn tenor and deep organ tone;
Some mourning words, which in our feeble tongue
Would come in these like accents — O! how frail,
To that large utterance of the early gods!—
"Saturn, look up! though wherefore, poor old king?
I cannot say, 'O wherefore sleepest thou!'
For heaven is parted from thee, and the earth
Knows thee not thus afflicted for a god;
And ocean, too, with all its solemn noise,
Has from thy sceptre passed, and all the air
Is emptied of thine hoary majesty.
Thy thunder, conscious of the new command,
Rumbles reluctant o'er our fallen house;
And thy sharp lightning in unpractised hands
Scorches and borne our once serene domain.
O aching time! O moments big as years!
All, as ye pass, swell out the monstrous truth,
And press it so upon our weary griefs
That unbelief has net a space to breathe.
Saturn, sleep on! O, thoughtless, why did I
Thus violate thy slumbrous solitude?
Why should I ope thy melancholy eyes?
Saturn, sleep on! while at thy feet I weep."

As when, upon a tranced summer night,
Those green-robed senators of mighty woods,
Tall oaks, branch-charmed by the earnest stars,
Dream, and so dream all night without a stir,
Save from one gradual solitary gust
Which comes upon the silence, and dies off;
As if the ebbing air had but one wave;
So came these words and went.

The antique grace and solemnity of passages like this must be felt by every reader of poetry. The chief defects of Keats are his want of distinctness and precision, and the carelessness of his style. There would seem to have been even affectation in his disregard of order and regularity; and he heaps up images and conceits in such profusion, that they often form grotesque and absurd combinations, which fatigue the reader. Deep feeling and passion are rarely given to young poets redolent of fancy and warm from the perusal of the ancient authors. The difficulty with which Keats had mastered the classic mythology gave it an undue importance in his mind: a more perfect knowledge would have harmonised its materials, and shown him the beauty of chasteness and simplicity of style — the last but the greatest advantage of classic studies. In poets like Gray, Rogers, and Campbell, we see the ultimate effects of this taste; in Keats we have only the materials, unselected, and often shapeless. His imagination was prolific of forms of beauty and grandeur, but the judgment was wanting to symmetrise and arrange them, assigning to each its due proportion and its proper place. His fragments, however, are the fragments of true genius — rich, original, and various; and Mr. Leigh Hunt is right in his opinion, that the poems of Keats, with all their defects, will be the "sure companions in field and grove" of those who love to escape "out of the strife of commonplaces into the haven of solitude and imagination."