Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Keats, John

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3474074Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition, Volume XIV — Keats, JohnAlgernon Charles Swinburne

KEATS, JOHN, born October 29, 1795, published his first volume of verse in 1817, his second in the following year, his third in 1820, and died of consumption at Rome, February 23, 1821, in the fourth month of his twenty-sixth year. In his first book there was little foretaste of anything greatly or even genuinely good; but between the marshy and sandy flats of sterile or futile verse there were undoubtedly some few purple patches of floral promise. The style was frequently detestable—a mixture of sham Spenserian and mock Wordsworthian, alternately florid and arid. His second book, Endymion, rises in its best passages to the highest level of Barnfield and of Lodge, the two previous poets with whom, had he published nothing more, he might most properly have been classed; and this, among minor minstrels, is no unenviable place. His third book raised him at once to a foremost rank in the highest class of English poets. Never was any one of them but Shelley so little of a marvellous boy and so suddenly revealed as a marvellous man. Never has any poet suffered so much from the chaotic misarrangement of his poems in every collected edition. The rawest and the rankest rubbish of his fitful spring is bound up in one sheaf with the ripest ears, flung into one basket with the richest fruits, of his sudden and splendid summer. The Ode to a Nightingale, one of the final masterpieces of human work in all time and for all ages, is immediately preceded in all editions now current by some of the most vulgar and fulsome doggrel ever whimpered by a vapid and effeminate rhymester in the sickly stage of whelphood. Shelley, up to twenty, had written little or nothing that would have done credit to a boy of ten; and of Keats also it may be said that the merit of his work at twenty-five was hardly by comparison more wonderful than its demerit at twenty-two. His first book fell as flat as it deserved to fall; the reception of his second, though less considerate than on the whole it deserved, was not more contemptuous than that of immeasurably better books published about the same time by Coleridge, Landor, and Shelley. A critic of exceptional carefulness and candour might have noted in the first book so singular an example of a stork among the cranes as the famous and noble sonnet on Chapman's Homer; a just judge would have indicated, a partial advocate might have exaggerated, the value of such golden grain amid a garish harvest of tares as the hymn to Pan and the translation into verse of Titian's Bacchanal which glorify the weedy wilderness of Endymion. But the hardest thing said of that poem by the Quarterly reviewer was unconsciously echoed by the future author of Adonais,—that it was all but absolutely impossible to read through; and the obscener insolence of the "Blackguard's Magazine," as Landor afterwards very justly labelled it, is explicable though certainly not excusable if we glance back at such a passage as that where Endymion exchanges fulsome and liquorish endearments with the "known unknown from whom his being sips such darling (!) essence." Such nauseous and pitiful phrases as these, and certain passages in his correspondence, make us understand the source of the most offensive imputations or insinuations levelled against the writer's manhood; and, while admitting that neither his love-letters, nor the last piteous outcries of his wailing and shrieking agony, would ever have been made public by merciful or respectful editors, we must also admit that, if they ought never to have been published, it is no less certain that they ought never to have been written; that a manful kind of man or even a manly sort of boy, in his love-making or in his suffering, will not howl and snivel after such a lamentable fashion. One thing hitherto inexplicable a very slight and rapid glance at his amatory correspondence will amply suffice to explain: how it came to pass that the woman so passionately beloved by so great a poet should have thought it the hopeless attempt of a mistaken kindness to revive the memory of a man for whom the best that could be wished was complete and compassionate oblivion. For the side of the man's nature presented to her inspection, this probably was all that charity or reason could have desired. But that there was a finer side to the man, even if considered apart from the poet, his correspondence with his friends and their general evidence to his character give more sufficient proof than perhaps we might have derived from the general impression left on us by his works; though indeed the preface to Endymion itself, however illogical in its obviously implied suggestion that the poem published was undeniably unworthy of publication, gave proof or hint at least that after all its author was something of a man. And the eighteenth of his letters to Miss Brawne stands out in bright and brave contrast with such as seem incompatible with the traditions of his character on its manlier side. But if it must be said that he lived long enough only to give promise of being a man, it must also be said that he lived long enough to give assurance of being a poet who was not born to come short of the first rank. Not even a hint of such a probability could have been gathered from his first or even from his second appearance; after the publication of his third volume it was no longer a matter of possible debate among judges of tolerable competence that this improbability had become a certainty. Two or three phrases cancelled, two or three lines erased, would have left us in Lamia one of the most faultless as surely as one of the most glorious jewels in the crown of English poetry. Isabella, feeble and awkward in narrative to a degree almost incredible in a student of Dryden and a pupil of Leigh Hunt, is overcharged with episodical effects of splendid and pathetic expression beyond the reach of either. The Eve of St Agnes, aiming at no doubtful success, succeeds in evading all casual difficulty in the line of narrative; with no shadow of pretence to such interest as may be derived from stress of incident or depth of sentiment, it stands out among all other famous poems as a perfect and unsurpassable study in pure colour and clear melody—a study in which the figure of Madeline brings back upon the mind's eye, if only as moonlight recalls a sense of sunshine, the nuptial picture of Marlowe's Hero and the sleeping presence of Shakespeare's Imogen. Beside this poem should always be placed the less famous but not less precious Eve of St Mark; a fragment unexcelled for the simple perfection of its perfect simplicity, exquisite alike in suggestion and in accomplishment. The triumph of Hyperion is as nearly complete as the failure of Endymion; yet Keats never gave such proof of a manly devotion and rational sense of duty to his art as in his resolution to leave this great poem unfinished; not, as we may gather from his correspondence on the subject, for the pitiful reason assigned by his publishers, that of discouragement at the reception given to his former work, but on the solid and reasonable ground that a Miltonic study had something in its very scheme and nature too artificial, too studious of a foreign influence, to be carried on and carried out at such length as was implied by his original design. Fortified and purified as it had been on a first revision, when much introductory allegory and much tentative effusion of sonorous and superfluous verse had been rigorously clipped down or pruned away, it could not long have retained spirit enough to support or inform the shadowy body of a subject so little charged with tangible significance. The faculty of assimilation as distinguished from imitation, than which there can be no surer or stronger sign of strong and sure original genius, is not more evident in the most Miltonic passages of the revised Hyperion than in the more Shakespearean passages of the unrevised tragedy which no radical correction could have left other than radically incorrigible. It is no conventional exaggeration, no hyperbolical phrase of flattery with more sound than sense in it, to say that in this chaotic and puerile play of Otho the Great there are such verses as Shakespeare might not without pride have signed at the age when he wrote and even at the age when he rewrote the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, The dramatic fragment of King Stephen shows far more power of hand and gives far more promise of success than does that of Shelley's Charles the First. Yet we cannot say with any confidence that even this far from extravagant promise would certainly or probably have been kept; it is certain only that Keats in these attempts did at least succeed in showing a possibility of future excellence as a tragic or at least a romantic dramatist. In every other line of high and serious poetry his triumph was actual and consummate; here only was it no more than potential or incomplete. As a ballad of the more lyrical order, La belle Dame sans Merci is not less absolutely excellent, less triumphantly perfect in force and clearness of impression, than as a narrative poem is Lamia. In his lines on Robin Hood, and in one or two other less noticeable studies of the kind, he has shown thorough and easy mastery of the beautiful metre inherited by Fletcher from Barnfield and by Milton from Fletcher. The simple force of spirit and style which distinguishes the genuine ballad manner from all spurious attempts at an artificial simplicity was once more at least achieved in his verses on the crowning creation of Scott's humaner and manlier genius—Meg Merrilies. No little injustice has been done to Keats by such devotees as fix their mind's eye only on the more salient and distinctive notes of a genius which in fact was very much more various and tentative, less limited and peculiar, than would be inferred from an exclusive study of his more specially characteristic work. But within the limits of that work must we look of course for the genuine credentials of his fame; and highest among them we must rate his unequalled and unrivalled odes. Of these perhaps the two nearest to absolute perfection, to the triumphant achievement and accomplishment of the very utmost beauty possible to human words, may be that to Autumn and that on a Grecian Urn; the most radiant, fervent, and musical is that to a Nightingale; the most pictorial and perhaps the tenderest in its ardour of passionate fancy is that to Psyche; the subtlest in sweetness of thought and feeling is that on Melancholy. Greater lyrical poetry the world may have seen than any that is in these; lovelier it surely has never seen, nor ever can it possibly see. From the divine fragment of an unfinished ode to Maia we can but guess that if completed it would have been worthy of a place beside the highest. His remaining lyrics have many beauties about them, but none perhaps, can be called thoroughly beautiful. He has certainly left us one perfect sonnet of the first rank; and as certainly he has left us but one.

Keats, on high and recent authority, has been promoted to a place beside Shakespeare; and it was long since remarked by some earlier critic of less note that as a painter of flowers his touch had almost a Shakespearean felicity,—recalling, a writer in our own day might have added, the hand of M. Fantin on canvass. The faultless force and the profound subtlety of this deep and cunning instinct for the absolute expression of absolute natural beauty can hardly be questioned or overlooked; and this is doubtless the one main distinctive gift or power which denotes him as a poet among all his equals, and gives him right to a rank for ever beside Coleridge and Shelley. As a man, the two admirers who have done best service to his memory are, first and far foremost, Lord Houghton, and secondly Mr Matthew Arnold. These alone, among all who have written of him without the disadvantage or advantage of a personal acquaintance, have clearly seen and shown us the manhood of the man. That ridiculous and degrading legend which imposed so strangely on the generous tenderness of Shelley, while evoking the very natural and allowable laughter of Byron, fell to dust at once for ever on the appearance of that admirable and unsurpassed biography which gave perfect proof to all time that "men have died and worms have eaten them," but not for fear of critics or through suffering inflicted by reviews. Somewhat too sensually sensitive he may have been in either capacity, but the nature of the man was as far as was the quality of the poet above the pitiful level of a creature whose soul could "let itself be snuffed out by an article"; and in fact, owing doubtless to the accident of a death which followed so fast on his early appearance and his dubious reception as a poet, the insolence and injustice of his reviewers in general have been comparatively and even considerably exaggerated. Except from the chief fountainhead of professional ribaldry then open in the world of literary journalism, no reek of personal insult arose to offend his nostrils; and then as now the tactics of such unwashed malignants were inevitably suicidal; the references to his brief experiment of apprenticeship to a surgeon which are quoted from Blackwood in the shorter as well as in the longer memoir by Lord Houghton could leave no bad odour behind them save what might hang about men's yet briefer recollection of his assailant's unmemorable existence. The false Keats, therefore, whom Shelley pitied and Byron despised would have been, had he ever existed, a thing beneath compassion or contempt. That such a man could have had such a genius is almost evidently impossible; and yet more evident is the proof which remains on everlasting record that none was ever further from the chance of decline to such degradation than the real and actual man who made that name immortal. (a. c. s.)

Subjoined are the most important facts in the life of Keats. He was born, as already stated, in London on October 29, 1795. At an early age he was sent to school at Enfield, and in 1810 he was apprenticed to a surgeon at Edmonton. On the completion of his apprenticeship, in 1815, he removed to London for the purpose of walking the hospitals, and soon made the acquaintance of Leigh Hunt, and subsequently that of Haydon, Hazlitt, Shelley, and others. After having published some sonnets in the Examiner, of which Hunt was at that time editor, he was encouraged by the praise of his friends to give to the world a volume of Poems in 1817, and a second, entitled Endymion, a Poetic Romance, in the following year. Meanwhile, symptoms of hereditary lung-disease having shown themselves, he spent some months in visiting the English lake district and portions of Scotland and Ireland, but without re-establishing his failing health: on his return to London the despondency which had fallen upon him on this account was deepened by the death of his younger brother. Soon after this event he first became acquainted with Miss Brawne, and the friendship rapidly grew into a passion which combined with straitened circumstances and the steady progress of disease to give a tragical cast to all that remained of his brief career. In 1820 the results of his literary activity during the two preceding years were published in Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St Agnes, and other Poems. In autumn of the same year, having been advised to winter in a more genial climate, he sailed for Italy. The voyage proved of little advantage, and after some months of suffering he died at Rome on February 23, 1821. The Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of Keats were published in two volumes by R. Monckton Milnes in 1848; The Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne, with introduction and notes by Harry Buxton Forman, appeared in 1878.