If any thing could engage me to visit Rome, to endure the sight of her scarred and awful ruins, telling their grave stories upon the ground in the midst of eunuchs and fidlers; if I could let charnel-houses and opera-houses, consuls and popes, tribunes and cardinals, orators and preachers, clash in my mind, it would be that I might afterwards spend an hour in solitude, where the pyramid of Cestius points to the bones of Keats and Shelley. Nothing so attracts my heart as ruins in deserts, or so repels it as ruins in the circle of fashion. What is so shocking as the hard verity of Death swept by the rustling masquerade of Life! and does not Mortality of herself teach us how little we are, without placing us amidst the trivialities of patchwork pomp, where Virgil led the Gods to found an empire, where Cicero saved and Cesar shook the world!
I wish, sir, you would favour us with a latin inscription for the tombs of the gentlemen whose names you mentioned, since the pathetic is not requisite in that species of composition.
Altho I have written at various times a great number of such inscriptions, as parts of literature, yet I think nothing is so absurd if you only inscribe them on a tomb. Why should extremely few persons, the least capable perhaps of sympathy, be invited to sympathize, while thousands are excluded from it by the iron grate of a dead language? Those who read a latin inscription are the most likely to know already the character of the defunct, and no new feelings are to be excited in them but the language of the country tells the ignorant who he was that lies under the turf before them; and, if he was a stranger, it naturalizes him amongst them; it gives him friends and relations; it brings to hint and detains about him some who may imitate, many who will lament him. We have no right to deprive any one of a tender sentiment, by talking in an unknown tongue to him, when his heart would listen and answer to his own: we have no right to turn a chapel into a library, locking it with a key which the lawful proprietors cannot turn.
It was not my fortune (shall I call it good or bad, now they are dead?) to know those young men, who, within so short a space of time, have added, after some centuries, two more immortal names to the cemeteries of Rome. Upon one of them I have written what by no means satisfies me.
Fair and free soul of poesy, O Keats!
O how my temples throb, my heart-blood beats,
At every, image, every word of thine!
Thy bosom, pierced by Envy, drops to rest;
Nor hearest thou the friendlier voice, nor seest
The sun of fancy climb along thy line.
But under it, altho a viperous brood
That stung an Orpheus (in a clime more rude
Than Rhodope and Hemus frown upon)
Still writhes and hisses, and peers out for more
Whose buoyant blood they leave concreted gore,
Thy flowers root deep, and split the creviced stone.
Ill may I speculate on scenes to come,
Yet I would dream to meet thee at our home
With Spenser's quiet, Chaucer's livelier ghost,
Cognate to thine . . not higher, and less fair . .
And Madaline and Isabella there
Shall say, without thee half our lutes were lost.
Here indeed is little of the pathetic. You must rather have been thinking on the depravity of those who exerted their popularity to depress him, heedless that it precipitated him to the tomb. Such people as Gifford are to be acquitted: for how could they feel his poetry or estimate his virtues? Gifford is the Harriet Wilson of our literary world; the witherer of young names.
There however have been poets who ran, it appears, for refuge to this quarter.
Doubtless it is a corner where many may stop a little, in case of need, but none would longer than the moment. As for refuge, it must be somebody at once pusillanimous and ignorant.
Not remarkably so . . nor indeed in other cases too prudent. He addresses Byron thus.
Why tar and sulphur hearts of oak,
The honestest of English folk,
Singing upon them,
O thou Nero,
Byron? . .while yet unscorcht and free
The devil take me but I'll flee
To goodman Gifford, under zero.
Whoever he is, I will give him my mind upon the subject, and in verse too.
'Tis better at the stake than in the stall,
And nobler is the axe than is the awl.
Byron is, I think, the wittiest of satirists.
I think the same. Either he has not exerted all his force, or he has not experienced all his felicity, on me. Rather than the world should have been a loser in this part of his poetry, I would have corrected and enlarged for him what he composed against me, and have furnished him with fresh materials. I only wish I could have diverted his pen from a better man and better writer, Southey.
I could imagine a part of that aspiration was for the assailant.
There are many hearts which have risen higher and sunk lower at his tales, and yet have been shocked and sorrowed at his untimely death a great deal less than mine has been. Honour and glory to him for the extensive good he did! peace and forgiveness for the partial evil!
Come, I cannot talk of extensive good, or indeed of one kind action, or (what perhaps might propitiate you) one fine sentence, in the "goodman under zero;" but while he is measuring your foot, tho with a clumsy and unclean hand, do not tread upon his fingers.
I do not always walk in the brushed path; yet where I sit down quietly I will not dirty my shoe wantonly.
Together we release the cloak,
A "retched wretched rag indeed!"
But what shall we say of higher men, descending on Keats as he entered the field, and bringing down the loyal militia and supplementary sharp-shooters of the Edinburgh press, until he had surrendered his pen and breathed his last?
Let us think that they have done, and hope that they will yet do, better things. They might, like the beneficent deity of old mythology, have fixed a new Delos, a Delos among the Cyclades of poetry. Fame often rests at first upon something accidental; and often too is swept away, or removed at least, for a time. But neither genius nor glory are conferred at once; nor do they glimmer and fall, like the drops in a grotto, at a shout. Their foundations in the beginning may be scooped away, by the slow machinery of malicious labour; but after a season they increase with every surge that comes against them, and harden at every tempest to which they are exposed.