1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Keats

Epes Sargent, in Harper's Cyclopaedia of British and American Poetry (1882) 485-86.



John Keats (1796-1821) was born in London, October 29th, 1796, in the house of his grandfather, who kept a livery-stable at Moorfields. Educated at Enfield, at fifteen years of age John was apprenticed to a surgeon. In 1818 he published Endymion, a poem of great promise, and showing rare imaginative powers. It was criticised severely by Croker and Gifford in the Quarterly Review; for Keats, having been lauded and befriended by Leigh Hunt, was treated by his Tory critics as belonging to a distasteful school of politics. Keats did not write politics, but he had a friend who did. It is not probable that the Quarterly's abuse hastened the young poet's death, as is generally supposed. He suffered less than Shelley imagined from censure that he knew to be unjust. To him and others Keats modestly admitted the shortcomings of his early work. "I have written," he said, "independently, without judgment; I may write independently, and with judgment, hereafter. The genius of poetry must work out its own salvation in a man." That Keats was largely influenced in his style by his familiarity with the poems of Leigh Hunt is quite apparent; but he soon surpassed his model. Endymion seems to have worked its way gradually to recognition as the production of a true poet; and the praises bestowed on it awakened the jealousy of Byron, who wrote: "No more Keats, I entreat! slay him alive; if some of you don't, I must skin him myself. There is no bearing the drivelling idiotism of the manikin." But Byron lived to lament his rough words; and (November, 1821) attributes his indignation to Keats's depreciation of Pope, which, he says, "hardly permitted me to do justice to his own genius, which, malgre all the fantastic fopperies of his style, was undoubtedly of great promise. His fragment of Hyperion seems actually inspired by the Titans, and is as sublime at Aeschylus."

In 1820 appeared Keats's Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and other poems. Of a delicate and sensitive constitution, he had seriously impaired his health by the care he had lavished on his dying brother, Tom; and he made a trip to Italy with the hope of recovering strength: but the seeds of consumption were lodged in his constitution. Speaking of his brother's death, he writes: "I have a firm belief in immortality, and so had Tom." The Eve of St. Agnes, was praised warmly by Jeffrey and other leading critics. It is one of the most charming and perfect of the poet's works, and written, it would seem, under Spenserian influence.

At Rome Keats became seriously worse, and died on the 23d of February, 1821. A few days before his death he had expressed to his friend, Mr. Severn, the wish that on his gravestone should be the inscription: "Here lies on whose name was writ in water." Shelley was moved by Keats's death to produce the fiery elegy of Adonais, worthy to be classed with the Lycidas of Milton, and the In Memorium of Tennyson. Keats's rank is at the head of all the poets who have died young. The affluence of his imagination is such that he often seems to have given himself no time to select and properly dispose of his images. His Hymn to Pan, in Endymion, was referred to by Wordsworth as "a pretty piece of Paganism" — a just criticism, but one that somewhat nettled Keats. He would have been a more popular, if not a greater, poet, if he had been less in love with the classical mythology. He has had a brood of imitators, American as well as English.

Coleridge, in his Table-Talk, gives an interesting reminiscence, as follows: "A loose, slack, not well-dressed youth met Mr. — and myself in a lane near Highgate. — knew him, and spoke. It was Keats. He was introduced to me, and stayed a minute or so. After he left us a little way, he came back, and said, 'Let me carry away the memory, Coleridge, of having pressed your hand!' 'There is death in that hand,' I said to —, when Keats was gone; yet this way, I believe, before the consumption showed itself distinctly."

The fame of Keats has not diminished since his death. The fact that what he wrote was written before his twenty-sixth year will long give to his productions a peculiar interest.