In a brief and dismissive review, John Wilson Croker takes aim at John Keats, for imitating the supposedly vicious style of the much-despised Leigh Hunt: "This author is a copyist of Mr. Hunt; but he is more unintelligible, almost as rugged, twice as diffuse, and ten times more tiresome and absurd than his prototype, who, though he impudently presumed to seat himself in the chair of criticism, and to measure his own poetry by his own standard, yet generally had a meaning. But Mr. Keats had advanced no dogmas which he was bound to support by examples; his nonsense therefore is quite gratuitous; he writes it for its own sake, and, being bitten by Mr. Leigh Hunt's insane criticism, more than rivals the insanity of his poetry."
This famous review, printed anonymously as all reviews then were, was long attributed to William Gifford, editor of the Quarterly, who made a point of never commenting on the identity of his reviewers even when, as in this instance, he was ruthlessly attacked by his opponents among the Whigs.
Percy Bysshe Shelley: "The genius of the lamented person to whose memory I have dedicated these unworthy verses, was not less delicate and fragile than it was beautiful; and where cankerworms abound, what wonder, if it's young flower was blighted in the bud? The savage criticism on his Endymion, which appeared in the Quarterly Review, produced the most violent effect on his susceptible mind; the agitation thus originated ended in the rupture of a blood-vessel in the lungs; a rapid consumption ensued, and the succeeding acknowledgments from more candid critics, of the true greatness of his powers, were ineffectual to heal the wound thus wantonly inflicted" Preface to Adonais (1821) 3-4.
William Hazlitt: "Mr. Keats's ostensible crime was that he had been praised in the Examiner Newspaper: a greater and more unpardonable offence probably was, that he was a true poet, with all the errors and beauties of youthful genius to answer for. Mr. Gifford was as insensible to the one as he was inexorable to the other" "Mr. Gifford" The Spirit of the Age: or Contemporary Portraits (1825) 288.
Cyrus Redding: "Gifford had been a cobbler, and the son of the livery-stable-keeper was not worthy of his critical toleration! Thus it always is with those narrow-minded persons who rise by the force of accident from vulgar obscurity: they cannot tolerate a brother, much less superior power or genius in that brother. On the publication of Keats's next work, Endymion, Gifford attacked it with all the bitterness of which his pen was capable, and did not hesitate, before he saw the work, to announce his intention of doing so to the publisher. Keats had endeavoured, as much as was consistent with independent feeling, to conciliate the critics at large, as maybe observed in his preface to that poem. He merited to be treated with indulgence, not wounded by the envenomed shafts of political animosity for literary errors" "Memoir of John Keats" Poetical Works of Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats (1829) v.
Louis J. Jennings: "Although Mr. Croker wrote verses, he never pretended to be a poet. The weapon which he handled best was prose. In this year of his appointment to the Admiralty, a publication made its appearance which was afterwards to afford him great scope for the display of his highest literary powers, and to which he became devotedly attached — the Quarterly Review. It was the chief pride of his life to be associated with this famous periodical, and his best original work was done for its pages. He delighted to be included in the list of its founders, but he was not a first a contributor; ten numbers had been published, and among them all there was but one article by him — in number three. But from 1811 to 1854, with the exception of an interval between 1826 and 1831, he seldom failed to supply an article for every number of the Review, and sometimes he wrote three or four articles, every one of which was tolerably sure to attract immediate notice. Although his strength lay greatly in political discussion, he was one of the most entertaining of writers in the general field of literature, and few men equalled him as a critic" The Croker Papers, ed. Jennings (1884) 1:23.
E. Stevenson: "The politics of the Quarterly were strongly Tory, otherwise the new magazine very much followed the lines of the Edinburgh. The same impressions are left on the mind by similar sizes of paper, type, length of articles, general style, strong opinions strongly expressed, and, at times it must be added, similar gross misjudgments. All have heard of the article on Keats' Endymion, which for so long was erroneously supposed to have hastened his death, though it is only fair to state that the corresponding criticism in Blackwood's Magazine is far worse in its personal spitefulness" Early Reviews of Great Writers (1890) xv.
Raymond Macdonald Alden: "Another contributor was John Wilson Croker, who, from his political associations, would have been thought likely to devote himself to works in that field, but who seems actually to have found most pleasure in invading the field of poetry. Unfortunately for his reputation, the anonymity of his work has been penetrated by the ruthless researches which have attached his name to the Quarterly's ill-famed review of Endymion, proving that it was he whom Shelley immortalized as a 'deaf and viperous murderer' and a 'noteless blot on a remembered name.' We no longer believe that this review hastened (much less caused) the death of Keats, and hence can view it more calmly than Croker's contemporaries. We can see that most of the charges which the reviewer brought against Endymion were pretty well justified, and that his fault lay only in a not unnatural blindness to the beauty and promise of the experimental work before him, together with a typical rude pleasure in inflicting pain" Critical Essays of the Early Nineteenth Century (1921) xxv.
Reviewers have been sometimes accused of not reading the works which they affected to criticise. On the present occasion we shall anticipate the author's complaint, and honestly confess that we have not read his work. Not that we have been wanting in our duty — far from it — indeed, we have made efforts almost as superhuman as the story itself appears to be, to get through it; but with the fullest stretch of our perseverance, we are forced to confess that we have not been able to struggle beyond the first of the four books of which this Poetic Romance consists. We should extremely lament this want of energy, or whatever it may be, on our parts, were it not for one consolation — namely, that we are no better acquainted with the meaning of the book through which we have so painfully toiled, than we are with that of the three which we have not looked into.
It is not that Mr. Keats, (if that be his real name, for we almost doubt that any man in his senses would put his real name to such a rhapsody,) it is not, we say, that the author has not powers of language, rays of fancy, and gleams of genius — he has all these; but he is unhappily a disciple of the new school of what has been somewhere called Cockney poetry; which may be defined to consist of the most incongruous ideas in the most uncouth language.
Of this school, Mr. Leigh Hunt, as we observed in a former Number, aspires to be the hierophant. Our readers will recollect the pleasant recipes for harmonious and sublime poetry which he gave us in his preface to "Rimini," and the still more facetious instances of his harmony and sublimity in the verses themselves; and they will recollect above all the contempt of Pope, Johnson, and such like poetasters and pseudo-critics, which so forcibly contrasted itself with Mr. Leigh Hunt's self-complacent approbation of
—all the things itself had wrote,
Of special merit though of little note.
This author is a copyist of Mr. Hunt; but he is more unintelligible, almost as rugged, twice as diffuse, and ten times more tiresome and absurd than his prototype, who, though he impudently presumed to seat himself in the chair of criticism, and to measure his own poetry by his own standard, yet generally had a meaning. But Mr. Keats had advanced no dogmas which he was bound to support by examples; his nonsense therefore is quite gratuitous; he writes it for its own sake, and, being bitten by Mr. Leigh Hunt's insane criticism, more than rivals the insanity of his poetry.
Mr. Keats's preface hints that his poem was produced under peculiar circumstances.
"Knowing within myself (he says) the manner in which this Poem has been produced, it is not without a feeling of regret that I make it public. — What manner I mean, will be quite clear to the reader, who must soon perceive great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished." — Preface, p. vii.
We humbly beg his pardon, but this does not appear to us to be quite so clear — we really do not know what he means — but the next passage is more intelligible.
"The two first books, and indeed the two last, I feel sensible are not of such completion as to warrant their passing the press." — Preface, p. vii.
Thus "the two first books" are, even in his own judgment, unfit to appear, and "the two last" are, it seems, in the same condition — and as two and two make four, and as that is the whole number of books, we have a clear and, we believe, a very just estimate of the entire work.
Mr. Keats, however, deprecates criticism on this "immature and feverish work" in terms which are themselves sufficiently feverish; and we confess that we should have abstained from inflicting upon him any of the tortures of the "fierce hell" of criticism, which terrify his imagination, if he had not begged to he spared in order that he might write more; if we had not observed in him a certain degree of talent which deserves to be put in the right way, or which, at least, ought to be warned of the wrong; and if, finally, he had not told us that he is of an age and temper which imperiously require mental discipline.
Of the story we have been able to make out but little; it seems to be mythological, and probably relates to the loves of Diana and Endymion; but of this, as the scope of the work has altogether escaped us, we cannot speak with any degree of certainty; and must therefore content ourselves with giving some instances of its diction and versification: — and here again we are perplexed and puzzled. — At first it appeared to us, that Mr. Keats had been amusing himself and wearying his readers with an immeasurable game at bouts-rimes; but, if we recollect rightly, it is an indispensable condition at this play, that the rhymes when filled up shall have a meaning; and our author, as we have already hinted, has no meaning. He seems to its to write a line at random, and then he follows not the thought excited by this line, but that suggested by the rhyme with which it concludes. There is hardly a complete couplet inclosing a complete idea in the whole book. He wanders from one subject to another, from the association, not of ideas but of sounds, and the work is composed of hemistichs which, it is quite evident, have forced themselves upon the author by the mere force of the catchwords on which they turn.
We shall select, not as the most striking instance, but as that least liable to suspicion, a passage from the opening of the poem.
—Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
'Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead; &c. &c. — pp. 3, 4.
Here it is clear that the word, and not the idea, "moon" produces the simple sheep and their shady "boon," and that "the 'dooms' of the mighty dead" would never have intruded themselves but for the "fair musk-rose blooms."
For 'twas the morn: Apollo's upward fire
Made every eastern cloud a silvery pyre
Of brightness so unsullied, that therein
A melancholy spirit well might win
Oblivion, and melt out his essence fine
Into the winds: rain-scented eglantine
Gave temperate sweets to that well-wooing sun;
The lark was lost in him; cold springs had run
To warm their chilliest bubbles in the grass;
Man's voice was on the mountains; and the mass
Of nature's lives and wonders puls'd tenfold,
To feel this sun-rise and its glories old. — p. 8.
Here Apollo's "fire" produces a "pyre," a silvery pyre of clouds, "wherein" a spirit might "win" oblivion and melt his essence "fine," and scented "eglantine" gives sweets to the "sun," and cold springs had "run" into the "grass," and then the pulse of the "mass" pulsed "tenfold" to feel the glories "old" of the new-born day, &c.
One example more.
Be still the unimaginable lodge
For solitary thinkings; such as dodge
Conception to the very bourne of heaven,
Then leave the naked brain: be still the leaven,
That spreading in this dull and clodded earth
Gives it a touch ethereal — a new birth. — p. 17.
"Lodge," "dodge" — "heaven," "leaven" — "earth," "birth;" such, in six words, is the sum and substance of six lines.
We come now to the author's taste in versification. He cannot indeed write a sentence, but perhaps he may be able to spin a line. Let us see. The following are specimens of his prosodial notions of our English heroic metre.
Dear as the temple's self, so does the moon,
The passion poesy, glories infinite. — p. 4.
So plenteously all weed-hidden roots. — p. 6.
Of some strange history, potent to send. — p. 18.
Before the deep intoxication. — p. 27.
Her scarf into a fluttering pavilion. — p. 33.
The stubborn canvass for my voyage prepared—. — p. 39.
"Endymion! the cave is secreter
Than the isle of Delos. Echo hence shall stir
No sighs but sigh-warm kisses, or light noise
Of thy combing hand, the while it travelling cloys
And trembles through my labyrinthine hair," — p. 48.
By this time our readers must be pretty well satisfied as to the meaning of his sentences and the structure of his lines: we now present them with some of the new words with which, in imitation of Mr. Leigh Hunt, he adorns our language.
We are told that "turtles 'passion' their voices," (p. 15); that "an arbour was 'nested,'" (p. 23); and a lady's locks "'gordian'd' up," (p. 32); and to supply the place of the nouns thus verbalized Mr. Keats, with great fecundity, spawns new ones; such as "men-slugs and human 'serpentry,'" (p. 41); the "'honey-feel' of bliss," (p. 45); "wives prepare 'needments,'" (p. 13) — and so forth.
Then he has formed new verbs by the process of cutting off their natural tails, the adverbs, and affixing them to their foreheads; thus, "the wine out-sparkled," (p. 10); the "multitude upfollowed," (p. 11); and "night up-took," (p. 29). "The wind up-blows," (p. 32); and the "hours are down-sunken," (p. 36.)
But if he sinks some adverbs in the verbs he compensates the language with adverbs and adjectives which he separates from the parent stock. Thus, a lady "whispers 'pantingly' and close," makes "'hushing' signs," and steers her skiff into a "'ripply' cove," (p. 23); a shower falls "refreshingly," (45); and a vulture has a "'spreaded' tail," (p. 44.)
But enough of Mr. Leigh Hunt and his simple neophyte. — If any one should be bold enough to purchase this "Poetic Romance," and so much more patient, than ourselves, as to get beyond the first book, and so much more fortunate as to find a meaning, we entreat him to make us acquainted with his success; we shall than return to the task we now abandon in despair, and endeavour to make all due amends to Mr. Keats and to our readers.