1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Keats

A., "An Essay on Keats's Poetry" Living Poets of England: Specimens of the Living British Poets (1827) 2:563-64.



This poet died of a consumption, some years ago, still a very young man, and his whole works, indeed, bear evidence enough of the fact. They are full of extravagance and irregularity, rash attempts at originality, and interminable wanderings. 'Twas reported by his friends he died of a broken heart at Rome, and the Quarterly review was his murderer. But if the articles of this literary despot are sometimes over-malignant, they don't suffice to kill an author, as, in another sense, the friends who are immortalized by the Review's partial puffing don't always live very long. J. Keats was an imitator of the older writers and especially of the older dramatists; his poems, according to the more indulgent criticism of the Edinburgh review, are as full of genius as of absurdity: "they are flushed all over with the rich light of fancy and so bestrewn with the flowers of poetry, that even while perplexed and bewildered in their labyrinths, it is impossible to resist the intoxication of their sweetness." We will quote another passage of the article concerning Keats:

"There is something very curious too, in the way in which Keats, and Mr. Barry Cornwall also, have dealt with the Pagan mythology, of which they have made so much use in their Poetry. Instead of presenting its imaginary persons under the trite and vulgar traits that belong to them in the ordinary systems, little more is borrowed from them than the general conception of their conditions and relations; and an original character and distinct individuality is bestowed upon them, which has all the merit of invention, and all the grace and attraction of the fictions on which it is engrafted. The antients, though they probably did not stand in any great awe of their deities, have yet abstained very much from any minute or dramatic representation of their feelings and affections. In Hesiod and Homer, they are coarsely delineated by some of their actions and adventures, and introduced to us merely as the agents in those particular transactions; while in the Hymns, from those ascribed to Orpheus and Homer, down to those of Callimachus, we have little but pompous epithets and invocations, with a flattering commemoration of their most famous exploits — and are never allowed to enter into their bosoms, or follow out the train of their feelings, with the presumption of our human sympathy. Except the love-song of the Cyclops to his Sea Nymph in Theocritus, — the lamentation of Venus for Adonis in Moschus — and the more recent Legend of Apuleius, we scarcely recollect a passage in all the writings of antiquity in which the passions of an immortal are fairly disclosed to the scrutiny and observation of men. The author before us, however, and some of his contemporaries, have dealt differently with the subject; — and, sheltering the violence of the fiction under the ancient traditionary fable, have created and imagined an entire new set of characters, and brought closely and minutely before us the loves and sorrows and perplexities of beings, with whose names and supernatural attributes we had long been familiar, without any sense or feeling of their personal character. We have more than doubts of the fitness of such personages to maintain a permanent interest with the modern public; — but the way in which they are here managed, certainly gives them the best chance that now remains for them; and, at all events, it cannot be denied that the effect is striking and graceful."

P. B. Shelley was very partial to John Keats and sung his death in an elegy entitled Adonais. The two friends now sleep together side by side in the burial-ground, near Caius Sextus's pyramid — "a place so beautiful, said Shelley, that it might almost make one in love with death."