1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Keats

Anonymous, "Contemporary Poetry: The Eve of St. Agnes" New England Galaxy [Boston] 12 (25 September 1829).



"The Eve of St. Agnes" we regard as one of the richest and most beautiful poems to be found in the English language. Rich in the new, the remarkable and yet the perfectly natural imagery with which it is crowded, — beautiful in the gentleness of sentiment and the melody of language that characterize its every stanza.

We do not mean to say that we look upon it as a faultless production. It came from the heart of one too youthful, and too enthusiastic and too full of those "burning thoughts that will not brook restraint," to be free from errors and and indications of a judgment hardly arrived at maturity. It requires no critical acumen to run over its lines, and to designate phrases which savour of affectation, and ideas feebly conceived and quaintly or meanly expressed. These however cannot dwell long in the mind of the reader who will but mark with what ease the author conjures up a train of splendid shapes, and with what effect he causes them to pass by, like the shadows of a pleasant dream, or the shifting hues of a summer sunset. The "tiger-moth's deep-damask'd wings," which he spreads over his blazonry; the "carved angels" on the cornice, "With hair blown back, and wings put cross ways on their breasts," the moonlit casement, "high and triple-arched," blushing "with blood of kings and queens," and the lustrous salvers gleaming in the dim, silvery twilight, — are figures which will haunt the brain in colors too vivid, and in forms too palpable, ever to be forgotten.

Mr. Keats was, in the truest sense of the word, a poet. Unfortunately for his fame but a small portion of the public is acquainted with his writings; and yet they are replete with delicate imaginations, full of originality, and eloquent with the sweetest music. During the early part of his career, he was almost concealed among the common crowd, until Envy singled him out, and busied herself in the work of defaming his spotless character, and Malice exposed him to the sneers and jibes of the unfeeling. He died at last solitary and in sorrow, in a foreign land.

It is at all times difficult, if not impossible, to argue others into a love of poets and poetry; it is altogether a matter of feeling, and it must be left to time, while it hallows his memory, to do justice to the reputation of Keats. There were some who held his powers in high estimation; and it was well observed in the Edinburgh Review, that there was no author whose writings would form so good a test as his, by which to try the relish that any one professed for poetry.

When Keats left England, he had a presentiment that he should not return to the land of his nativity. After his arrival in Italy, he revived for a period, but soon afterwards declined and sunk gradually into the grave. He was one of the three English poets who had been compelled by adverse circumstances to adopt a foreign country as their home. Of these Byron was proud to hail him as one of the chosen sons of Apollo, and Shelley died with a volume of his poems pressed to his bosom. When shall we see the places of these filled by men worthy to be remembered as they are? — Keats was the youngest of these brothers in soul, and the first to depart. His sad and beautiful wish was accomplished: It was that he might drink "of the warm South," and "leave the world unseen," and — (he is addressing the nightingale,)

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, and 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.

A few weeks before he died, a gentleman who was sitting by his bed-side, spoke of an inscription to his memory; but he declined this altogether, — declaring that there should be no mention of his name or country; "or if any," said he, "let it be — 'Here lies the body of one, whose name was writ in water!'"

But enough of this subject. Let us no more think of him as one of the departed, but fancy that we see him in his exquisite pieces of workmanship. These it may one day be our task to collect. That they are worthy of preservation among the choicest examples of English poetry, let the "Eve of St. Agnes" bear witness.