Imatges de pÓgina

delight in nature itself, a delight so genuine that it almost covers from sight the half formal, half negligent beadroll of poetic subjects. Keats was born almost within sound of Bowbells, but his school days and early youth were spent in the rural environs of Enfield and Edmonton, and he escaped often from the city to Hampstead, not merely for companionship, but because there the nightingale sang, and there the walk in the woods or the stroll on the heath brought him face to face with the solitude which yielded indeed in his mind to pleasant converse, yet was, as he knew well, the direct road to converse with nature. Perhaps, in the lines, 'I stood tiptoe,' it is the close and loving observation of nature which first arrests one's attention, but a nearer scrutiny quickly reveals that imaginative rendering which lifts these lines far above the level of descriptive poetry. If in some of Wordsworth's sketches from nature written when he was of the same age one descries a profounder consciousness of human personality and a deeper sense of elemental relations, one is aware also of longer stretches of purely descriptive verse; with Keats there is an instant alchemy by which all sights and sounds are transmuted into the elements of a poetic world.

As this poem goes on it trembles into a half dreamy rapture of the poet away from all scenes into the world of visions, but it is in 'Sleep and Poetry,' written apparently at about the same time, that we discover a more precise witness to the poetic ideals now well formed in Keats's mind. The poet placed this piece last in his first printed volume, as if he intended to make it his personal apology. It is in part an impassioned plea for the freedom of imagination as against the artifices of the school of Pope, but even when thus half formally reciting his creed, Keats shows how little of the dogmatist there was in his nature, how little even of the critic, by the careless wandering of his own poem, and the unconscious expression of his own delight in everything that is beautiful in nature or art; so that as he writes his eye takes in the walls of the room where he lies, and he falls to versifying its contents. He thrills with the consciousness of being a poet, and flushes over the prospect of what he may do, yet at present what he does is rather the overflow of a poetic nature than the studied product of an artist.

The poems which precede 'Endymion' are many of them chiefly interesting for the hints they give thus of a nature which was gathering itself for a large leap. They are, as the reader will see, tentative excursions into the airy region, and they contain besides little witnesses to some of the important compelling influences which were forming Keats's mind. Thus the sonnets to Haydon illustrate Keats's recognition of Wordsworth, and also the great impression made upon him by the introduction which Haydon gave him to Greek art. They bear evidence, too, of his increasing study of Shakespeare and of his admiration for Milton, whose minor poems seem at this time to have exercised much influence over his style. Hunt's influence can be seen in the poems, but more indirectly than directly, for Hunt with his fine taste had done much to open the way to a return of lovers of poetry to the spacious days of Elizabeth. The poems are sometimes exercises, sometimes illuminations of a poetic mind, and they have a rare value to the student of poetry,

as they disclose the mingling of great poetic traditions with the bursts of a poetic nature which was itself to add to the stock of great English verse.


There was about a year's space between Keats's abandonment of his profession and his occupation upon a long and serious poem. The group in this volume entitled Early Poems' gives the product of that period. That is, the pieces from 'I stood tiptoe upon a little hill' to the end of the section may be referred to this time, and the first one may fairly be taken as a sort of prologue to his adoption of a poetical life. When he was writing these poems he was living much with his brothers, to whom he was warmly attached, and was in a circle of ardent friends, men and women. He was an animated talker, with bursts of indignation, and a prey somewhat to moods of depression. His appearance has been described by many, and is thus summed up by Mr. Colvin: A small, handsome, ardent-looking youth the stature little over five feet; the figure compact and well turned, with the neck thrust eagerly forward, carrying a strong and shapely head set off by thickly clustering gold-brown hair; the features powerful, finished, and mobile; the mouth rich and wide, with an expression at once combative and sensitive in the extreme; the forehead not high, but broad and strong; the eyebrows nobly arched, and eyes hazel-brown, liquid-flashing, visibly inspired-"an eye that had an inward look, perfectly divine, like a Delphian priestess who saw visions."'


Keats was in London and its neighborhood during most of this year, but after the publication of his first volume of poems he went to the Isle of Wight and later to the seashore, and soon began to occupy himself with his serious labor of 'Endymion.' While he was working upon this poem he wrote but few verses. His letters, however, show him immersed in literature and the friendships which with him were so identified with literature, and kept, moreover, in a state of restlessness by what in homely phrase may be termed the growing pains of his poetic nature. 'I went to the Isle of Wight,' he writes to Leigh Hunt, May 10, 1817, 'thought so much about poetry, so long together, that I could not get to sleep at night; and, moreover, I know not how it was, I could not get wholesome food. By this means, in a week or so, I became not over capable in my upper stories, and set off pell mell for Margate, at least a hundred and fifty miles, because, forsooth, I fancied that I should like my old lodging here, and could contrive to do without trees. Another thing, I was too much in solitude and consequently was obliged to be in continual burning of thought, as an only recourse. However, Tom is with me at present, and we are very comfortable. . . . These last two days I have felt more confident. I have asked myself so often why I should be a poet more than other men, seeing how great a thing it is,—how great things are to be gained by it, what a thing to be in the mouth of Fame, that at last the idea has grown so monstrously beyond my seeming power of attainment, that the other day I nearly consented with myself to drop into a Phaethon. Yet 't is a disgrace to fail, even in a huge attempt; and at this moment I drive the thought from me.' These lines were written when Keats was deep in 'Endymion,' and with others 1 Keats [Men of Letters Series]. By Sidney Colvin.

[ocr errors]

they intimate with some clearness how seriously Keats took himself, as the saying is. Much reading of great poetry had set standards for him rather than furnished models. It is not difficult to trace Keats's indebtedness to other poets, so far as words and turns of expression go, yet his confessed imitations show almost as conclusively as his original verse how incapable he was of merely reproducing out of the quarries of other poetry his own fair buildings. His was a nature possessed of poetic power, yet fed more than usual by great poetry. That he should have gone by turns to ancient mythology and mediæval romance for his themes, and have treated both in a spirit of romance, was due to a large artistic endowment, which bade him see both nature and humanity as subjects for composition, furnishing images to be delighted in. He was conscious of poetic genius, and never more so than when reading great poetry. In the presence of Shakespeare and Spenser he could exclaim, 'I too am a poet,' and this was no mere excitement such as hurries lesser men into clever copying, but an exhilaration which sent his pulses bounding as his own conceptions rose fair to view. It was obedience to this strong impulse to produce a great work of art which led him to sketch 'Endymion ’ and try his powers upon an attack on the very citadel of poetic beauty. Fame waved a wreath before him, yet it was not Fame but Poetry that really urged him forward. It is not unfair to translate even a confession of desire for fame into an acknowledgment of conscious power.

[ocr errors]

'Endymion' was published in the spring of 1818, and Keats's own attitude toward his work at this time is well expressed in the sonnet When I have fears that I may cease to be,' and in that written on sitting down to read King Lear once again. The very completion of his task set free new fancies, and there is a spontaneity in his occasional verse and in his letters which witnesses to a rapid maturing of power and a firmness of tread. The interesting letter to Reynolds of February 3, 1818, which contains a spirited criticism of Wordsworth and holds the Robin Hood verses, is quick with gay strength, and shows the poet alert and sane. The publication of 'Endymion' was an important event to Keats and his circle. His earlier volume, the verses which he had since written and shown, and his own personality, had raised great expectations among his near friends and the few who could discern poetry without waiting for the poet to be famous; and now he was staking all, as it were, upon this single throw. The book was coarsely and roughly handled by the two leading reviews of the day, Blackwood's and the Quarterly. Criticism in those days was far from impersonal. A poet was condemned or praised, not for his work, but for his politics, the friends he associated with, his religion, and anything in his private life which might be known to the reviewer. Keats knew the worthlessness of much of this criticism, but he felt nevertheless keenly the hostility of what, rightly or wrongly, was looked upon as the supreme court in the republic of letters.

Under other circumstances he might have felt this even more keenly, and there appears to be evidence that he recurred afterward with bitterness to the attitude of the reviews; but just at this time other matters filled his mind. His brother,

George Keats, with his wife, went to America to try fortune in the new world, and Keats immediately afterward took a long walking tour in the north with his friend Brown. His letters and the few poems of travel he wrote show how ardently he threw himself into this acquaintance with a new phase of nature. But he was to pass through experiences which entered more profoundly into life. In December of the same year, 1818, his brother Tom died. He had been his constant companion and nurse, and was with him at his death. Then, when his whole nature was deeply stirred, he came to know and ardently to love a girl who by turns fascinated and repelled him, until he was completely enthralled, without apparently finding in her the repose which his restless nature needed.

[ocr errors]

Keats's first mention of Fanny Brawne scarcely prepares one for the inroads made upon him by this personage during the rest of his short life. He went to live with his friend Brown after Tom's death, and Mrs. Brawne became his nextdoor neighbor. 'She is a very nice woman,' he writes, and her daughter senior is I think beautiful and elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange. We have a little tiff now and then- and she behaves a little better, or I must have sheered off.' The passion which he conceived for Miss Brawne rapidly mounted into a dominant place, and it is one of the marks of Keats's deeper nature, not disclosed to his friends, intimate as he was with them, that for the two years which intervened before he left England a dying man, he carried this passion as a sort of vulture gnawing at his vitals, concealed for the most part, though not wholly. Some overt expression it found, as in the 'Ode to Fanny,' the Lines to Fanny,' and the verses addressed to the same person beginning:

'I cry your pity-mercy-love, ay love,'

[ocr errors]

and it may be traced, with little doubt, in those poems which emphasize his moods, such as the Ode to Melancholy' and the sonnet beginning:

[ocr errors]

and that also beginning:

'Why did I laugh to-night?'

"The day is gone, and all its sweets are gone.'

The letters contain infrequent allusions, except of course the posthumously published letters to the lady herself.

But with this overmastering passion to reckon with, the student of Keats can scarcely avoid regarding it as strongly influencing the poet's career during his remaining days. The turbulent experience of death and love acted upon a physical organism predisposed to decay, and soon it was apparent that Keats was himself invaded by the disease of consumption, which had wasted his brother Tom. But before this ravaging of his powers set in, that is, during the first half of 1819, when he was at once deepened by sorrow and excited by love, he wrote that great group of poems which begins with 'The Eve of St. Agnes' and closes with Lamia.' If one takes as in some respects the high-water mark of his genius the mystic' La Belle Dame sans merci,' it is not perhaps too speculative a judgment which sees the keenest anguish of a passionate soul transmuted into terms of impersonal

[ocr errors]

poesy. There is no hectic flush about the poetry of this half year, but an increasing firmness of touch and rich, yet reserved imagination.

But great as his products were, he had not found his public, and the little property he had was slipping away, so that he was confronted by the fear of poverty as his weakness grew upon him. Nothing seemed to go well with him; his love affair brought him little else than exquisite pain. It is probable that on Keats's side the pride which was so dominant a chord in his nature forbade a man who could scarce support himself and felt the damp dews of decline chilling his vitality from seeking refuge in marriage with a girl who was in happier circumstance than he. He tried to turn his gifts into money by aiming at fortune with a play for the popular stage. He tried his hand at work for the periodicals. He even considered the possibility of returning to his profession of surgery for a livelihood. But all these projects failed him, and he turned with an almost savage and certainly sardonic humor to a scheme for flinging at the head of the public a popular poem. The Cap and Bells' is a melancholy example of what a great poet can produce who is consumed by a hopeless passion and wasted by disease.

[ocr errors]

Keats clung to his friends and wrote affectionate letters to his family. His brother George came over from America on a brief business visit, and was disturbed to find John so altered; and scarcely had George returned in January, 1820, than the poet had a sharp attack with loss of blood. He rallied as the spring came on, and early in the summer saw to the publication of his last volume, containing Hyperion, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, Lamia,' and the 'Odes,' perhaps the most precious cargo carried in a vessel of this size in English literature in this century.

A month after the publication of the volume he was writing to Shelley, who had sent him an invitation to visit him in Pisa: 'There is no doubt that an English winter would put an end to me, and do so in a lingering, hateful manner. Therefore, I must either voyage or journey to Italy, as a soldier marches up to a battery." In September he put himself into the hands of his cheerful and steadfast friend Severn the artist, and they took passage for Naples. It was when they were detained by winds off the coast of England that Keats wrote his last sonnet, with its veiled homage to Fanny Brawne, and in Naples Harbor he wrote to Mrs. Brawne in a feverish mood: 'I dare not fix my mind upon Fanny, I have not dared to think of her. The only comfort I have had that way has been in thinking for hours together of having the knife she gave me put in a silver case the hair in a locket - and the pocket-book in a gold net. Show her this. I dare say no more.' And then there is the letter to Brown, with its agony of separation, in which he gives way to the torment of his love, with despair written in every line. It is difficult to say as one thinks of Keats's ashes whether the fire of passion or the fire of physical consumption had most to do with causing them.

It was in November, 1820, that the travellers reached Rome, and for a little while Keats could take short strolls on the Pincian Hill; but the fatal disease was making rapid progress, and on the 22d of February, 1821, he died, and three days.

« AnteriorContinua »