1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Keats

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 218-24.



It is very evident that John Keats, the greatest of all our poets who have died in early youth — not excepting Michael Bruce, Kirke White, or Chatterton — imbibed in boyhood a sincere admiration for the poetry of Leigh Hunt, and primarily adopted him as his model in style and diction; although, ere he ventured before the public, he had considerably altered and modified, or rather extended his views on these matters, by a reverential study of the antique English pastoral poets, Drayton, Spenser, and William Browne — the last of whom he especially followed in the selection of his imagery, and the varied harmony of his numbers. Crude, unsustained, and extravagant as these juvenile attempts in most part are, we have ever and anon indications of a fine original genius. His garden, though unweeded, is full of freshness and fragrance; the bindweed strangles the mignonette; and docks and dandelions half conceal the yellow cowslip and the purple violet; but we are wooed to this corner by the bud of the moss-rose, and to that by the double wallflower. We feel it to be a wilderness; but it is a wilderness of many sweets. I allude here more particularly to his first little volume, published in 1817, with a head of Spenser on the title-page, and dedicated to Leigh Hunt.

Images of majesty and beauty continued to crowd on the imagination of the young poet; but either his taste in selection was deficient, or be shrank from the requisite labour; and in the following year appeared his Endymion, a poetic romance. It would be difficult to point out anywhere a work more remarkable for its amount of beauties and blemishes, inextricably intertwined. Its mythology is Greek, and its imagery the sylvan-pastoral — reminding us now of the pine-flavoured Idyllia of Theocritus, and now of the "bosky bournes and bushy dells" of Milton's Comus. Preparatory to its composition, he had saturated his mind with the "leafy luxury" of our early dramatists; and we have many reflections of the rural beauty and repose pervading The Faithful Shepherdess of Fletcher, and The Sad Shepherd of Ben Jonson; as well as of the early Milton of the Arcades and Lycidas. We are entranced with the prodigal profusion of imagery, and the exquisite variety of metres sweeping along with an Aeolian harmony, at once so refined and yet seemingly so inartificial. All is, however, a wild luxurious revel merely, where Imagination laughs at Taste, and bids defiance to Judgment and Reason. There is no discrimination, no selection — even the very rhymes seem sometimes to have suggested the thoughts that follow; and whatever comes uppermost comes out, provided it be florid, gorgeous, or glittering. The work is a perfect mosaic of bright tints and graceful forms, despotically commingled, almost without regard to plan or congruity; so that we often lose the thin thread of story altogether in the fantastic exuberance of ornament and decoration. Ever and anon, however, we come to bits of exquisite beauty — patches of deep, serene blue sky, amid the rolling clouds, which compel us to pause in admiration — glimpses of nature full of tenderness and truth — touches of sentiment deep as they are delicate. His opening line, "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever," conveys a fine philosophic sentiment, and is the key-note to the whole body of his poetry. Crude, unequal extravagant, nay, absurd as he sometimes is — for there is scarcely an isolated page in Endymion to which one or more of these harsh epithets may not in some degree be justly applied — yet, on the other hand, it would be difficult to point out any twenty lines in sequence unredeemed by some happy turn of thought, some bright image, or some eloquent expression.

That all this was the result of imaginative wealth and youthful inexperience, is demonstrated by the last poems John Keats was permitted to give the world, and which are as rich, but much more select, in imagery, purer in taste, and more fastidious in diction, as well as more felicitous and artistic. He had found out that, to keep interest alive, it was necessary to deal less with the shadowy, the remote, and the abstract; and that, without losing in dignity, he might descend more to the thoughts and feelings — nay, even to the ways, and habits, and language of actual life. From the pure mythological of Endymion he attempted a blending of the real with the supernatural in Lamia, and exactly with the degree of success which might, in the management of such elements, have been expected from him. Isabella, or the Pot of Basil, his version of Boccaccio's exquisite little story, is much less questionable. We have therein character and incident as well as description; and to these the last is made subordinate. We there also see, for the first time, that instead of playing with his theme, he has set himself in earnest to grapple with it. The composition is more elaborate, and we have a selection of thoughts and images instead of the indiscriminate pouring forth of all. The faults of affectation and quaintness, although not entirely got rid of, are there less glaring and offensive; and along with the mere garniture of fancy, we have a story of human interest, of love and revenge and suffering, well though peculiarly told. In this poem he wonderfully triumphed over his earlier besetting frailties — want of precision and carelessness of style — and exhibited such rapid strides of improvement, as enable us to form some probable estimate of what his genius might have achieved, had he been destined to reach maturer years.

His two latest were also his two most perfect compositions, yet completely opposite in their character — The Eve of St. Agnes, of the most florid Gothic, remarkable for its sensuous beauty; and Hyperion, a fragment equally remarkable for its Greek severity and antique solemnity of outline. To the same latest period of his strangely fevered and brief career — for he died at twenty-four — are referable the four exquisite odes, To a Nightingale, To a Grecian Urn, To Melancholy, and To Autumn, — all so pregnant with deep thought, so picturesque in their limning, and so suggestive.

Let us take three stanzas from The Eve of St. Agnes. They describe Madeline at her devotions before lying down to sleep on that charmed night. She has just entered her chamber, when—

Out went the taper as she hurried in;
Its little smoke in pallid moonshine died;
She closed the door, she panted, all akin
To spirits of the air and visions wide;
No uttered syllable, or, woe betide
But to her heart her heart was voluble,
Paining with eloquence her balmy side;
As though a tongueless nightingale should swell
Her throat in vain and die, heart-stifled in her cell.

A casement high and triple-arched there was,
All garlanded with carven imageries
Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,
And diamonded with panes of quaint device
Innumerable, of stains and splendid dyes,
As are the tiger-moth's deep damasked wings;
And in the midst, 'mong thousand heraldries,
And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blushed with blood of queens and kings.

Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
And threw warm gules on Madeline's fair breast,
As down she knelt in 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 seemed a splendid angel newly drest,
Save wings, for heaven; Porphyro grew faint,
She knelt so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint.

We have here a specimen of descriptive power luxuriously rich and original; but the following lines, from the Ode to a Nightingale, flow from a far more profound fountain of inspiration. After addressing the bird as a

—light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green and shadows numberless,
Singing of summer in full-throated ease,

he adds, somewhat fantastically, it must be owned, at first—

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 amongst 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 grows pale and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but 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.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown;
Perhaps the self-same song, that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in fairy lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a spell
To toll one back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintiff anthem fades
Past the near meadow, over the hill stream,
Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
In the next valley's glades:
Was it a vision or a waking dream?
Fled is that music; — do I wake or sleep?

In his earlier pieces Keats was too extramundane — too fond of the visionary. His fancy and feelings rioted in a sort of sun-coloured cloudland, where all was gorgeous and glowing, rose-tinctured or thunderous; but ever most indistinct, and often incomprehensible, save when regarded as dream-like imaginings — the morning reveries of a young enthusiast. His genius, however, was gradually coming under the control of judgment; his powers of conception and of expression were alike maturing; and his heart was day by day expanding to the genial influences of healthy simple nature. A large portion of what he has left behind is crude, unconcocted, and unsatisfactory, exhibiting rather poetical materials than poetical superstructure; but his happier strains vindicate the presence of a great poet in something more than embryo. Which of our acknowledged magnates, if cut off at the same age, would have left so much really excellent? Altogether, whether we regard his short fevered life, or the quality of his genius, John Keats was assuredly one of the most remarkable men in the range of our poetical literature; nor, while taste and sensibility remain in the world, can ever his prediction of his own fate be verified, when he dictated his epitaph as that of one "whose name was written in water."

As an example of Keats' severer manner, I give the magnificent portrait of Saturn, with which Hyperion opens. In the same fragment we find several other passages equally grand and solemn.

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 grey-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 not one light seed from the feather'd 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 foot-marks 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.