Studies in letters and life/On the Promise of Keats

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In the domestic, chatty, and nonsense portions of the letters of Keats, in their chaffing, their abandon, their unregarded laughter (and admirable fooling they are, too), there is a spontaneous and irresponsible gayety, which, being quite natural only to the young heart and mind, charmingly discloses his youthfulness as a prime quality. Of all the famous English poets, he had most of the spirit of April in him. His senses were keen; his temperament was feverish, now jealous and irritable, and straightway humble and indulgent; his imaginary joys and sorrows were spiritual possessions, subjecting him; his humor was scampering, his fancy teeming, his taste erratic, his critical faculty exposed to balking enthusiasms; his opinions of men and affairs were hasty, circumscribed, frequently adopted unreflectingly at second-hand; and, with all these boyish traits, he was extremely self-absorbed. At the centre of his individuality, nevertheless, was the elemental spark, the saving power of genius, the temperance, sanity, and self-reverence of a fine nature gradually coming to the knowledge of its faculties and unriddling the secret of its own moral beauty. Hence Lord Houghton, doing more essential justice to Keats than any of his louder eulogists, describes his works as rather the exercises of his poetical education than the charactery of his original and free power; and Matthew Arnold, even when placing him with Shakespeare, excuses him as a 'prentice hand in the wisest art. Too many of his admirers, seizing upon the external, accidental, and temporal in his biography and the fragmentary and parasitical in his poetry, have really wronged Keats more than did the now infamous reviews; they have rescued him from among the cockneys only to confound him with the neo-pagans. In what did the promise of Keats lie? The first step in the inquiry is the recognition of his immaturity,—the acknowledgment that his memorials must be searched for the germ rather than the fruit.

Sensuous Keats was, as every poet whose inspiration is direct from Heaven must be; unfortunately, the extraordinary beauty and facility of his descriptions of sensation, and his taste for climax and point in his prose have made it easy to quote phrases which seem to show that he was unduly attached to delights of mere sense. To pass by the anecdotes of Haydon, not too scrupulous a truth-teller, here is a characteristic paragraph written to his brother George:—

"This morning I am in a sort of temper, indolent, and supremely careless; I long after a stanza or two of Thomson's Castle of Indolence; my passions are all asleep, from my having slumbered till nearly eleven, and weakened the animal fibre all over me to a delightful sensation about three degrees this side of faintness. If I had teeth of pearl and the breath of lilies, I should call it languor; but as I am I must call it laziness. In this state of effeminacy, the fibres of the brain are relaxed in common with the rest of the body, and to such a happy degree that pleasure has no show of enticement and pain no unbearable frown; neither poetry, nor ambition, nor love have any alertness of countenance; as they pass by me, they seem rather like three figures in a Greek vase, two men and a woman, whom no one but myself could distinguish in their disguisement. This is the only happiness, and is a rare instance of advantage in the body overpowering the mind."

With similiar zest he enumerates the pleasures of drinking claret or of eating a peach, or he describes his "East Indian" to his brother's wife: "She kept me awake one night, as a tune of Mozart's might do. I speak of the thing as a pastime and an amusement, than which I can feel none deeper than a conversation with an imperial woman, the very 'yes' and 'no' of whose lips is to me a banquet.... As a man of the world, I love the rich talk of a Charmian; as an eternal being, I love the thought of you. I should like her to ruin me, and I should like you to save me."

Such quick susceptibility to sensuous impressions of every kind may be plentifully illustrated by opening almost at random in his works. But the characteristics that mark the real sensualist—the content that the lotus-leaf vapors forth, the fierceness of the centaur's pursuit, the struggle of the faun's transformation are nowhere to be found in the letters or the poems; before his illness, at least, there is no debility, irresolution, or mastery of the instincts over the mind. In fact, without any revolution of his nature, without the slightest effort, by mere growth it would seem, he passed on into the "Chamber of Maiden Thought," as he phrased it, and became absorbed as deeply in his reflections as previously in his impulses. At no time, indeed, was he wholly unthoughtful. The passages that have been given above are parenthetical, and should be read in connection with such as these, of the opposite tenor:—

"I must think that difficulties nerve the spirit of a man; they make our prime objects a refuge as well as a passion."

"I am becoming accustomed to the privations of the pleasures of sense. In the midst of the world, I live like a hermit. I have forgot how to lay plans for the enjoyment of any pleasure. I feel I can bear anything,—any misery, even imprisonment,—so long as I have neither wife nor child."

"Women must want imagination, and they may thank God for it; and so may we, that a delicate being can feel happy without any sense of crime."

"Scenery is fine, but human nature is finer; the sward is richer for the tread of a real nervous English foot; the eagle's nest is finer for the mountaineer having looked into it."

Many a remark, based like these immediately upon his own experience, shows that Keats had an insight into his own life and an outlook on the world inconsistent with the portrayal of him as merely impassioned with sensuous beauty.

So far, in fact, was Keats from being either lapped in Lydian airs or fed on food of sweetest melancholy that he was sometimes a disagreeably unhappy person, if his brother George's description of him be entirely true, since his moodiness was vented in complaints, irritable jealousies, and like ways. However exceptional such occasions were in the intercourse of the brothers, this exposure, taken together with some of the upbraidings in the letters to Fanny Brawne, is very significant. Keats himself refers to the strain of morbidity in him, and, although from time to time he felt the strong awakening of the philanthropic instinct, frequently expresses his distaste for society, his misanthropy, his indifference to the public, his wish to live withdrawn, free from human relations, engaged in poetizing for his own sake. Toward women especially he had a bitter tongue, before he fell in love with Fanny Brawne.

"When I was a schoolboy, I thought a fair woman a pure goddess; my mind was a soft nest in which some one of them slept, though she knew it not.... When I am among women, I have evil thoughts, malice, spleen; I cannot speak or be silent; I am full of suspicions, and therefore listen to nothing; I am in a hurry to be gone. You must be charitable, and put all this perversity to my being disappointed since my boyhood. Yet with such feelings I am happier alone, among crowds of men, by myself, or with a friend or two."

He ascribes this peculiarity to his love for his brothers, "passing the love of women:"

"I have been ill-tempered with them, I have vexed them,—but the thought of them has always stifled the impression that any woman might otherwise have made on me."

He saw but little to choose, in his satirical moods, between men and hawks:—

"The hawk wants a mate; so does the Man. Look at them both; they set about it and procure one in the same manner; they want both a nest, and they set about one in the same manner. The noble animal man, for his amusement, smokes a pipe; the hawk balances about the clouds: that is the only difference of their leisures."

Experience did not teach him more charity, though it made him more discriminating:—

"The more I know of men the more I know how to value entire liberality in any of them. Thank God, there are a great many who will sacrifice their worldly interest for a friend. I wish there were more who would sacrifice their passions. The worst of men are those whose self-interests are their passions; the next, those whose passions are their self-interest. Upon the whole, I dislike mankind. Whatever people on the other side of the question may advance, they cannot deny that they are always surprised at hearing of a good action and never of a bad one."

This temper toward man in the abstract is the general feeling of which his mood toward the public is a special instance. He simply disregarded men who stood in no intimate relation to him, whether he met them in society or wrote verses for them to read. He was not, if his word be literally taken, sensitive to criticism or ambitious of popularity: he neglected the one because he put faith in his own judgment, and he despised the other because it was to be got at a vulgar cost. His depreciation of the life of men, as he saw it, arose partly from a consciousness of power, partly from a sense of the distance between his thoughts and hopes and those of his fellows. The aloofness of genius he had in full measure. That curiously complex emotion, into which so many instincts and perceptions enter that it is scarcely analyzable at all, and is forced to go under the name of pride, was often dominant in his moods when others than his friends were before his attention. In short, Keats was as incompatible with his surroundings as ever any young poet left to the oblivion of his own society; and he was as indignant at stupidity, as tired of insignificance, as thoroughly world-weary, as a solitary enthusiast for the ideal could well be. In his last letter to George he sums the whole matter up more fully than at first but to the same purport:—

"'T is best to remain aloof from people, and like their good parts without being eternally troubled with the dull process of their every-day lives. When once a person has smoked the vapidness of the routine of society, he must either have self-interest or the love of some sort of distinction to keep him in good humor with it. All I can say is that, standing at Charing Cross and looking east, west, north, and south, I can see nothing but dullness. I hope while I am young to live retired in the country. When I grow in years and have a right to be idle, I shall enjoy cities more."

In this opinion he did retire to one place or another,—the Isle of Wight, or Winchester, or Teignmouth, and there isolating himself dreamed out his poems. He lived in a sort of ecstasy during no small portion of these solitary hours, when he could call the roaring of the wind his wife, the stars through the window panes his children, and rest contented in the abstract idea of beauty in all things. This absorption in the idea of beauty which determined the formulation of his creed in the oft-quoted lines,—

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know;"

which also led him into that much misunderstood exclamation, "O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts;" this intoxication, as it were, with the loveliness of earth, was in his belief a true Pythian inspiration, the medium of the divine revelation. The world takes such expressions as extravaganzas, or as mystical philosophy; but to Keats they were as commonplace as the proverbs of the hearth; he meant them as entirely lucid expressions of plain sense. This point in the criticism of Keats has been too little insisted on and brought to notice. He put his faith in the suggestions of the spirit; he relied on the intimations of what is veiled from full sight; he had little patience with minds that cannot be content with half-knowledge, or refuse to credit convictions because they cannot be expressed in detail, with logical support, and felt with the hand of sense all round, if one may employ the phrase; in other words, he believed in the imagination as a truth-finding faculty, not less valid because it presents truth in a wholly different way from the purely logical intellect. This was the deepest and most rooted persuasion of his mind from the time when he first comes under our observation. To bring together a few expressions of it is the only right way of setting forth his creed in this matter. The following extracts are from various parts of his letters, from the earliest to the later ones:—

"At once it struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the penetralium of Mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration."

"Many a man can travel to the very bourne of heaven, and yet want confidence to put down his half-seeing."

"I never feel quite certain of any truth but from a clear perception of its beauty, and I find myself very young-minded, even in that perceptive power."

"The whole thing must, I think, have appeared to you, who are a consecutive man, as a thing almost of mere words. But I assure you that, when I wrote it, it was a regular stepping of the imagination toward a truth."

"What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth, whether it existed before or not.... The imagination may be compared to Adam's dream—he awoke and found it truth. I am more zealous in this affair because I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning, and yet [so] it must be.... However it may be, O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts! It is a 'vision in the form of youth,' a shadow of reality to come."

A shadow of reality to come! What a light that sentence throws on the aspiration for sensations rather than thoughts, for beauty rather than logic, for the sight rather than the inference, for the direct rather than the mediate perception of the divine! So, at least, it is plain, Keats understood himself; and whether one counts his faith a vague self-deception, meaningless except to a mystic, or has found the most precious truth borne in upon his heart only by this selfsame way, the recognition of the poet's philosophy not merely lifts Keats out of and above the sphere of the purely sensuous, but reveals at once the spiritual substance which underlies his poetry, and which gives it vitality for all time. To other men beauty has been a passion, but to him it was a faith; it was the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen,—a shadow of the reality to come. It was not, as with other poets, in the beauty of nature, the beauty of virtue, the beauty of a woman's face, singly that he found his way to the supra-sensible; he says in his most solemn words, "I have loved the principle of beauty in all things." Dying he said it proudly, as one who had kept the faith that was given him; and since he chose that declaration as the summary of his accomplishment, it needs to be borne in mind, with all its large and many-sided meaning, by those who would pluck out the heart of his mystery.

But although to Keats the worship of beauty in all things was the essence of his life, and the delight that sprang from it the essence of his joy, he did not find in these the whole of life. At first he had been satisfied if the melancholy fit fell on him, "sudden from heaven, like a weeping cloud,"—eager to let the passion have its way with him, until it wreaked itself upon expression; but he felt this overmastering of his own will an injury, not merely exhausting but wasteful.

"Some think I have lost that poetic ardor and fire 't is said I once had; the fact is, perhaps I have; but, instead of that, I hope I shall substitute a more thoughtful and quiet power. I am more frequently, now, contented to read and think, but now and then haunted with ambitious thoughts,... scarcely content to write the best verses for the fever they leave behind. I want to compose without this fever. I hope I one day shall."

Similarly, he wishes to know more, and is determined to "get learning, get understanding," if only that he may keep his balance in the "high sensations" that draw him into their whirl.

"Although I take poetry to be the chief, there is something else wanting to one who passes his time among books and thoughts on books.... I find earlier days are gone by—I find I can have no enjoyment in the world but continual drinking of knowledge. I find there is no worthy pursuit but the idea of doing some good to the world.... There is but one way for me. The road lies through application, study, and thought. I will pursue it; and, for that end, purpose retiring for some years."

The years that should have perfected his powers were denied to him; his account was made up. In these broken plans, however; in this constant expansion of his view and faithful laying of his experience to heart; in the wisdom of his interpretation of what came within his scope; in a word, in his teachableness as well as in his steadier enthusiasm, his uncloyed sensibility, his finer spirituality, as the promise of Keats seems brighter, so his worth seems greater. These letters show that more had passed into his character than was ever reproduced in his poems. We come back to Lord Houghton's decision. Fine as the work of Keats is, his genius was, nevertheless,

It has been suggested in some quarters that, notwithstanding his early death, he would probably have done no better work, if indeed he even maintained himself at the height he had reached. In support of this it is urged that Wordsworth's best poetry was written in youth, and that Coleridge's powers were employed on really excellent verse only for two years. These letters make it folly to entertain such a belief; they (and the works too) exhibit not only an increase of intellectual, but also of artistic power. No criticism of his poetry is intended here; but, in connection with this point, it may be remarked that his principal defect is in style, as is shown by the necessity he continually felt of studying literary models, which nevertheless affected his productions hardly at all, except in linguistic handling, in the choice and flow of words, after Spenser, the structure of sentences, after Milton, and later (in Lamia), after Dryden, and in a movement and kind of verbal esprit, after Ariosto. This restless change from one master to another, as well as some few critical remarks, indicates a power to form a distinctive style of his own. Again, the marked pictorial character of his poetry—the quality it has to impress one like a cartoon or a bas-relief ("the brede of marble men and maidens"), the grace of form and attitude in the figures of his poetic vision—was clearly recognized by him to be in excess in his compositions. Originally, this was due, in a high degree, to the accident of his friendship with Haydon; the portfolios of the masters helped his imagination in definiteness, in refinement, and especially in power of grouping. As the mind became more to him, and the eye less, he was dissatisfied with this trait of his works. He condemned even the most perfect composition of this kind in English: "I wish to diffuse the coloring of St. Agnes' Eve throughout a poem in which character and sentiment would be the figures to such drapery." One who could speak of such a poem as "drapery" was far from the conclusion of his artistic education. Lastly, he was from the beginning ambitious of writing dramas. Otho and King Stephen are by no means unmistakable prophecies of success, had he continued in this hope. The effort, however, proves an interest in humanity of a different order from that shown in the mythological or lyrical pieces, and makes evident how far the naturalism of his published poetry was from expressing the fullness of his mind. These three things—the incipiency of his style, the acknowledged insufficiency of picturesque art in creating the best poetry, and the ardent desire to deal with human life directly, and on the large scale, in the drama—are enough to convince us that Keats was truly a Chatterton, only less unfortunate,—"born for the future, to the future lost;" one who, though he wears, Adonis-like, the immortal youth that lies in the gift of early death, would have been even dearer to the world, had his name lost in pathos and gained in honor, as it assuredly would have done if his grass-grown grave wore the wheaten garland of England instead of the Roman daisies.