1873 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Keats

Joseph Devey, "Alexandrine Poets. Keats" A Comparative View of Modern English Poets (1873) 263-74.



Within view of Shelley's grave, rests the dust of Keats. It seems fitting that men so akin to each other in spirit, should rest side by side. For they were united in the same belief in human perfectibility, in the same antagonism to the public institutions of their time. They drew their inspiration from the same fountain — the undying beauty of the world's youth, as imaged in the creations of antique Greece. The souls of each seemed kindled with flame lit direct from the altar of the gods. Both re-embodied the old divinities. Steeped in the light of their genius, the denizens of Olympus no longer appeared abstract personifications of some particular quality, but actual flesh-and-blood creations, with sympathies as keen, with affections as glowing as our own. The aim of both was to invest earth with the spiritual light of Elysium, to companion man with the divinities, to restore the links of that philosophy which, viewing every atom as a manifestation of spirit, in a higher or lower form, bound up the universe in one reciprocal bond of mutual relationship and dependance. To them the old conception of the elemental powers seemed the best expression of the invisible agencies presiding over the destinies of creation. The times for which Julian had sighed, almost appeared to have come back again. The deities of Greece stepped from their pedestals once more to converse with mortals. Heaven appeared a part of earth, as earth appeared the fore-court of heaven.

With Wordsworth, poetry was a philosophy. But with Shelley and Keats it was both a philosophy and a religion. But Shelley seems to have arrived at his results by processes of reasoning, Keats by flights of his imagination. With Shelley, truth always appeared as the spirit of beauty. But Keats saw in beauty the spirit of truth. He had no idea of truth apart from the imaginative element, as something locked up under the control of the logical faculty. The spirit of beauty manifesting itself in the outer harmonies of things, appeared to him only a reflex of the operations of the same spirit in the invisible sphere; and he thought its results could be far more easily fathomed by the imagination, than by any ratiocinative process whatever. Indeed, I very much doubt whether Keats did not think forms of reasoning, with respect to their competency to conduct men into the interior labyrinths of the universe, as forms of delusion. The old Greek, therefore, who lent wings to his fancy, when he wanted to account for natural phenomena, appeared to Keats a far more sensible personage than the modern philosopher, who applies the scale and compass to unveil the mysteries of creation. For the one only accounts for the transient and merely apparent action of delusive atoms of matter upon each other, whereas the other seizes hold of principles as permanent as they are real, and embodies them in effulgent forms, to supply and preserve in us the qualities of which they are the living exponents. If these forms did not exist except as symbols of the qualities which animated them, that appeared to Keats a very small matter, so long as their actions shadowed forth the operation of the qualities of which they were the embodiment, in the scheme of the universe. To that extent, at least, to Keats they were true. Now, of these qualities, love appeared the animating principle, as beauty was the external form; and the object of Keats' chief poem appears to have been to seek out further instances of these symbolised truths, revealing still deeper glimpses into this intimate alliance between love and beauty, in the actual relations of things, and thus light up the material with the splendours of the ideal universe:—

Ye deaf and senseless minutes of the day,
And thou, old forest, hold ye this for true,
There is no lightning, no authentic dew
But in the eye of love there's not a sound,
Melodious howsoever, can confound
The heavens and earth in one to such a death
As doth the voice of love there's not a breath
Will mingle kindly with the meadow air,
Till it has panted round, and stolen a share
Of passion from the heart.
["Endymion," b. iv., ls. 153-163.]

That there was a link between the sympathy of the elements for each other, and that existing between human beings, Keats not only believed, but hints that the one could not go on without the other:—

Who, of men, can tell
That flowers would bloom, or that green fruit would swell
To melting pulp; that fish would have bright mail,
The earth its dower of river, wood, and vale,
The meadows runnels, runnels pebble-stones,
The seed its harvest, or the lute its tones,
Tones ravishment, or ravishment its sweet,
If human souls did never kiss and greet?
[Ibid, b. 1.]

It is when diving deep into those secret relations between the different ranks of creation, free from the conditions under which the laws of intuition are exercised, that we get beyond the cheating appearances of things, and live like disembodied spirits in the very heart of the universe:—

Wherein lies happiness? In that which becks
Our ready minds, to fellowship divine,
A fellowship with essence, till we shine,
Full alchemised and free of space. Behold
The clear religion of heaven! Fold
A rose-leaf round thy finger's taperness,
And soothe thy lips hist! when the airy stress
Of Music's kiss impregnates the free winds,
And with a sympathetic touch unbinds
Eolian magic from their lucid wombs;
Then old songs waken from enclouded tombs,
Old ditties sigh above their father's grave;
Ghosts of melodious prophesyings rave
Round every spot where trod Apollo's foot;
Bronze clarions awake, and faintly bruit,
Where long ago a giant-battle was;
And from the turf, a lullaby doth pass
In every place where infant Orpheus slept.
Feel we these things? that moment have we stept
Into a sort of oneness, and our state
Is like a floating spirit.
["Endymion," b. 1.]

As love with Keats is the great bond which binds together the different orders of creation, so in the little world of man, it is the only feature which claims eternal remembrance, no less in the history of the human race than in the experience of each private individual. Battles, sieges, and political or religious revolutions, are mere lumber in the chamber of history, being completely overshadowed by feats of love, which can alone rivet our attention, while deeds of rapine and social convulsion fast sink into oblivion:—

O sovereign power of love! O grief! O balm
All records, saving thine, come cool, and calm,
And shadowy, through the mist of passed years:
For others, good or bad, hatred and tears
Have become indolent; but touching thine,
One sigh doth echo, one poor sob doth pine,
One kiss brings honey-dew from buried days.
The woes of Troy, towers smouldering o'er their blaze,
Stiff-holden shields, far-piercing spears, keen blades,
Struggling, and blood, and shrieks — all dimly fades
Into some backward corner of the brain;
Yet, in our very souls, we feel amain
The close of Troilus and Cressid sweet.
Hence, pageant history! hence, gilded cheat!
Swart planet in the universe of deeds!
Wide sea, that one continuous murmur breeds
Along the pebbled shore of memory!
Many old rotten-timber'd boats there be
Upon thy vaporous bosom, magnified
To goodly vessels; many a sail of pride,
And golden keel'd, is left unlaunch'd and dry.
But wherefore this? What care, though owl did fly
About the great Athenian admiral's mast?
What care, though striding Alexander past
The Indus with his Macedonian numbers?
Though old Ulysses tortured from his slumbers
The glutted Cyclops, what care? — Juliet leaning
Amid her window-flowers, — sighing, — weaning
Tenderly her fancy from its maiden snow,
Doth more avail than these: the silver flow
Of Hero's tears, the swoon of Imogen,
Fair Pastorella in the bandit's den,
Are things to brood on with more ardency
Than the death-day of empires. Fearfully
Must such conviction come upon his head,
Who, thus far, discontent, has dared to tread,
Without one muse's smile, or kind behest,
The path of love and poesy. But rest,
In chaffing restlessness, is yet more drear
Than to be crush'd, in striving to uprear
Love's standard on the battlements of song.
So once more days and nights aid me along,
Like legion'd soldiers.
["Endymion," b. ii.]

The plot of "Endymion," if, indeed, there is any sequence of events in the poem worthy of that name, brings the Latmian shepherd in contact with the loves of Venus and Adonis, of Alpheus and Arethusa, of Glaucus and Scylla, while the hero himself is pursuing his adventures with Diana. These, for the most part, are given in a series of visions. But the waking experiences of Endymion are so wild and romantic, and are so interwoven with his visionary ones, that it is difficult to say where the one ends, or the other begins. He descends into the sparry hollows of the earth, where cupids have the care of sleeping Adonis, whom Venus comes to rouse from his winter sleep, and transport into the skies, for summer dalliance. After riding between the wings of an eagle to a jasmine bower, for another dreaming dalliance with Diana, Endymion is transported to the palace of Olympus, upon a fiery courser, where he makes the acquaintance of the numerous household of Jupiter. On this journey he is accompanied by Diana, who leads him into the belief that she is an Indian waif from the train of Bacchus, and having in that capacity ensnared his affections, she, by some magical slight, appears to him in a vision to tax him with unfaithfulness, while he is couched in the Olympian hall, with the Indian waif whose form she had previously assumed. Endymion, perplexed between the Indian lady and the vision, is relieved from his conflicting loves by Diana dissolving into thin air. But this adventure, with respect to the marvellous, is surpassed by Endymion's visit to the roots of the ocean, where he assists Glaucus in reviving the dead bodies whom the waves had entombed, and transforming them into sea ministrants for the service of Neptune. As far as wonders go, Endymion's adventures exceed those of Astolfo, but the whole is shrined in so sensuous a philosophy, and is so deeply infused with the passion which more than any other engrosses human thought, that the sense of the marvellous is lost in the feeling that the visions of the poet do not transcend in their wildness, the spiritual harmonies of which they are the outward manifestation.

The "Endymion" contains passages which would do honour to the Elizabethan poets, with much commonplace which would disgrace Blackmore. The address to the moon, in the third book, is conceived in the loftiest, the address to the muse, in the fourth book, in the worst spirit of poetry. Wherever Keats has a picture of voluptuous passion, or of gorgeous scenery to paint, there he marvellously succeeds; wherever he has to produce any conception, which requires high moral truth to animate into life, there he egregiously fails. It would appear that his theory which submerged intellectual into aesthetic truth, exercised some deadening influence in unfitting him for that sweep through the blue empyrean of thought, by which alone the topmost heights of song can be scaled. For, instead of allowing his imagination to be moulded and guided by his judgment, his judgment takes its bent from the imagination. Fancy is never brought to illustrate reason, but reason is unceasingly employed upon the operations of fancy. Hence Keats, while perfect master of every subject which could be represented through the types of sensuous beauty, while he could condense a picture into a word, or make a line unfold a world of voluptuous thought, cannot advance a step in those regions where the ideal is to be sculptured out of the intellect alone, and where the imagination cannot invest its forms with the shapes and colours of actual creation. Of invention, in the wider sense, Keats affords us few if any striking samples. The time had not yet come when he could abandon his models and strike out new characters for himself. Boccaccio supplied him with the story of "Isabella;" and Tooke's "Pantheon" with the groundwork of "Endymion." In the poem of "Lamia" he did little more than amplify Burton. His friend Brown supplied him with the plot and characters of the "Tragedy of King Otho." But of invention in the narrower sense, as regards the creation of incidents to fill up the lacunes of a story or of a character, he evinced no lack of power. In pathos also he was deficient. Meek-eyed pity, mother of tears, never extended her wand over Keats. His habit of reposing on delicious sensations, of making his home in the very heart of voluptuous beauty, led him to avoid cultivating the power of imparting a sense of foreign wretchedness to others. The lofty misery, the silken grief of unsated love yearning for an object it could not find, or which but scantily requited its passion, is the only cloud which flits across the sunshine of Keat's page, and then only dimming its brightness with the shadow of beauty always present, and never with the blackness of an aching void. For Keats was too much occupied in blending the sensuous with the ideal, to make the heart sick over the wide chasm existing between the loveliness of its spiritual conceptions and their earthly realizations. Keats has been connected with Chatterton, as the second youthful prodigy in our literature; nor is the association unfitting. For the "Endymion," considering the youth of the writer, is as much a marvel as "Aella" or the "Battle of Hastings." It has as many beauties, though these are encumbered with greater blemishes, springing, perhaps, from the redundancy of that imaginative element in which Keats was undoubtedly superior. But the comparison must not blind us to the fact, that Keats lived five years longer than his rival, and even then proved deficient in invention and pathos in which Chatterton revelled.

It would be, however, manifestly unfair to test Keats' poetry by the principles we would apply to the productions of a writer who had arrived at the maturity of his powers, and in whose future there was no promise to fulfil. As well might we expect the ripe fruits of harvest in spring, as to find in the productions of youth, the mature beauties of later years. In judging of Keats, we must not take the crudities which spring from theories hastily formed, and which would have been as hastily abandoned, to guide our decision. We must take the general tone of his poetry, rather than isolated passages, the new ground which he broke, rather than what he actually accomplished, as a criterion of his powers. If we regard the spirit of originality he evinced, the lofty models he strove to emulate, and the voluptuous sense of beauty which reigns through all his conceptions, there can be only one opinion, that had he lived as long, he would have ranked as high, as any of his contemporaries. In the "Eve of St. Agnes," and in his shorter pieces, where the subject fell within the scope of his powers, he rises almost to the perfection of his art. What picture, for instance, in English poetry can surpass his portrait of Madeline?—

Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
And threw warm gules on Madeline's fair breast,
As down she knelt for heaven's grace and boon:
Rose-bloom fell on her hands together prest,
And on her silver cross soft amethyst,
And on her hair a glory, like a saint;
She seem'd a splendid angel newly drest,
Save wings for heaven: — Porpyhro grew faint:
She knelt so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint.

Anon his heart revives: Her vespers done,
Of all its wreathed pearls, her hair she frees,
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant boddice, by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees
Half hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,
Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,
In fancy, fair St. Agnes in her bed;
But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.

Soon, trembling in her soft and chilly nest,
In sort of wakeful swoon, perplex'd she lay,
Until the poppied warmth of sleep oppress'd
Her soothed limbs, and soul fatigued away,
Flown, like a thought, until the morrow day;
Blissfully haven'd both from joy and pain;
Clasp'd like a missal, where swart Paynims pray;
Blinded alike from sunshine and from rain,
As though a rose should shut and be a bud again.

His "Odes to Pysche" and the "Nightingale," and the "Lines on a Greek Vase," if they have not the classical finish of Collins, have as much depth of feeling, and far more luscious sweetness than anything Collins ever wrote. Most of his sonnets will not suffer from comparison with the best of Wordsworth's. His "Address to Fancy" only needed a little more sustained power to entitle it to be bound up with the "Allegro" of Milton:—

Sit thee by the ingle, when
The sear faggot blazes bright,
Spirit of a winter's night.
When the soundless earth is muffled,
And the caked snow is shuffled
From the ploughboy's heavy shoon;
When the Night doth meet the Moon
In a dark conspiracy,
To banish Even from the sky.

In rich imagination, very few poets have equalled Keats. Every trait, even the most commonplace feature he produces, derives new splendour from being steeped in the gorgeous colours of that faculty. He piles his images one upon the other with glowing hand, like the nectared sweets Porphyro heaped up for his lover, till the dullest objects became impregnated with ideal life and beauty, and human nature is elevated to a sphere of crystalline grace and purity of which we have but few outward manifestations. Where the objective sublime is not interwoven, as it frequently is, with the body of his subject, he easily attains it with a stroke of his pen, as,

Scowl on, ye Fates until the firmament
Outblackens Erebus, and the full cavern'd earth
Crumbles into itself.
["Endymion," b. iv., s. 122.]

or,

At this with madden'd stare
And lifted hands, and trembling lips he stood,
Like old Deucalion mountain'd o'er the flood,
Or blind old Orion hungry for the morn.
[Ibid., b. ii. s. 198.]

or,

I shall die
Like a sick eagle gazing on the sky.

Had the story of Isabella been his own, it would have derived, from Keats' manner of telling it, all the characteristics of a high class narrative poem, wanting, perhaps, nerve and fire, but still tremulous with voluptuous passion and the sad grief which springs from the violent extinction of its object. Isabella's woes, in the pages of the Italian, have an undying fragrance, but the English poet, while preserving all their original freshness, has steeped them in colours a ethereal as Homer ever threw round the deities be winged from heaven. All these excellencies in themselves would have sufficed to place Keats in the second rank of his art; but when we consider the unripe age of the writer, and the divine promise which they manifest, it can hardly be doubted, had his life been protracted, that he would have left few names in that rank above his own. But the great merit of Keats is, that he broke away from the established schools of poetry in his day, and followed the impulse of his genius in the realization of the beautiful. The antique creations of Greece furnished him with the forms, but the passionate sentiments with which he animated them, and the philosophy of which he made them the exponents, would have been as new to the inhabitants of ancient Greece as they were to those of modern Europe. Love and beauty, — those twin genii of the ideal world, it was Keats' aim to make the penates of each cottage hearth, — to domesticate permanently in every nook of perishable creation. In his poetry they became the foster guardians of this life, the powers calculated to strike selfishness out of man's nature, and restore the balance warped by Greek art on the side of sensuousness, and by Christian art on the side of dry spirituality, in favour of a union which should combine the perfections of both, without the faults of either. In Keats' pages the world may satiate its thirst for material loveliness, and feel that such loveliness is but the shell or outward embodiment of its spiritual purity. In his realm, there is no antagonism as in that of Milton, or of Wordsworth. He writes like one who had penetrated into the mysteries of the universe, who had drawn closer to his embrace the spirit of loveliness enshrined in creation, and who could throw back the curtains of gross material custom, and hard encrusted prejudice, to admit his fellows to the shrine of the same divine beauty with which he was intoxicated. With Keats, paradise was continually breaking through the earth in exuberant blossoms, and he would have its breath constitute the atmosphere of man's daily life, until its pleasures became not a future uncertainty, but a present reality. But the paradise of Keats was not a heaven stripped of material loveliness, and refined into spiritual vacuity, or a sensuous harem filled with voluptuous forms, but a sphere presided over by spiritual love as well as material beauty, in which man might sink the coarser elements which degrade and perplex his life, in the harmonious development of his nature, and posterity may wander with delight for ever.