1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Keats

Sumner Lincoln Fairfield, in "The Young Poets of Britain" Philadelphia Monthly Magazine 2 (September 1828) 329-32.



The beautiful skies of literature are often darkened by storms of passion, interest and revenge, but the annals of letters cannot record a more fearful sacrifice to the unprincipled vengeance of party, than the fine-minded and unfortunate Keats. His pure spirit allied itself to the kindred mind of Shelley, without imbibing contamination from his principles. His heart was ever reaching after a purer state of morals and society, but he did not scorn or offend the institutions of existing polity. The dim genius of antiquity hovered over his thoughts, and he basked in the imaginative glories of forgotten days. He shrunk from the follies and crimes around him, and sought refuge from their influence in the dreams and oracles of other years; yet, while he revived the beautiful and majestic imaginings of the olden time, and labored to inculcate their high doctrines upon modern degeneracy, he was bitterly persecuted by the critical satrap of a mercenary government, who added to the hireling vindictiveness of office, the envy of a low-minded literary rival; and the fine sensibilities of Keats were wantonly sacrificed at the shrine of policy, while Croker exultingly performed the executioner's office.

A proud and dignified independence breathes through all the productions of Keats; but there is nothing in his "Endymion," or "The Eve of St. John," or the unfinished "Hyperion," which could, in any possible degree, justify the privileged virulence of the Quarterly. We can readily believe that high church tories, whose faith reposes on the formulae of obsolete usages, may have found but little entertainment in the writings of this gifted youth; but the bitterness of that undistinguished invective, which they lavished upon him, has, long ago, recoiled upon themselves with ten-fold energy. There can be little doubt that the deep distress and despondency which terminated the life of Keats, were primarily occasioned by the relentless persecutions that followed his writings; and this is not the only instance of premature death, caused by the perfidy and vindictiveness of partisan malevolence, secretly operating through the spirit of literature.

The clear genius of the poet was clouded, and his spirit broken down by the infinite contumelies of his enemies. The demon of party snatched him from his studies, arrested his composition of "Hyperion," and banished him to the continent; there he lingered awhile, and then departed to a happier world, in the flower of his youth, and vigor of his hopes. The savage decree of his foes fulfilled — the sacrifice was performed, but woe be to those who personated the high priests of the fiendish rites. Let the poet be judged by himself. What can be more distinct, beautiful, and true, than this address to the nightingale?

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.

Farther on we find a most original and beautiful metaphor, a rare thing: beauty sleeping is "As though a rose would shut, and be a bud again."

The dethronement of Saturn by Jupiter, forms the subject of Hyperion. How awfully distinct are the images of the poet, as he guides the imagination to the refuge of the fallen god:

Deep in the shady sadness of a vale,
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon and eve's lone 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. * * *
* * * Upon the sodden ground
His old right hand lay nerveless, listless, dead,
Unsceptred; and his realmless eyes were closed;
While his bound head seemed listening to the earth,
His ancient mother, for some comfort yet.

He describes Saturn's empress and then proceeds:

How beautiful is sorrow, had not made
Sorrow more beautiful than beauty's self!
There was a listening fear in his regard,
As if calamity had but begun;
As if the rainward clouds of evil days
Had spent their malice, and the sullen roar
Was with its stored thunder labouring up.

Yet the poet who was equal to continued and sustained passages like these, fell a victim to the cold-blooded atrocity of a cringing office-holder; to the malignity and envy of Croker, Secretary (we think) of the Admiralty. So long as literature and the fine arts are made the vehicles of political and religious intolerance and calumny — so long as genius is sacrificed on the altar of Belial and Mammon — so long as personal animosity guides the pen of the public reviewer, the difficulties to be surmounted, the trials to be borne, and the dangers to be resisted in the pathway of poetry, will deter most men of genius and sensibility from the conflict. They will be more disposed to leave the gory arena to the Quarterly gladiators alone, and seek, in the bosom of retirement, that quiet happiness which seldom visited the heart of the unhappy Keats.