Imatges de pÓgina
PDF
EPUB

times was almost ungovernable; and his brother George, being considerably the taller and stronger, used frequently to hold him down by main force, laughing when John was 'in one of his moods,' and was endeavouring to beat him. It was all, however, a whisp-of-straw conflagration; for he had an intensely tender affection for his brothers, and proved it upon the most trying occasions. He was not merely the favourite of all, like a pet prize-fighter, for his terrier courage; but his highmindedness, his utter unconsciousness of a mean motive, his placability, his generosity, wrought so general a feeling in his behalf that I never heard a word of disapproval from any one, superior or equal, who had known him.”

The same excellent witness records, in agreement with the last, that in his earlier school-days Keats showed no particular signs of an intellectual bent, though always orderly and methodical in what he did. But during his last few terms, that is, in his fourteenth and fifteenth years, all the energies of his nature turned to study. He became suddenly and completely absorbed in reading, and would be continually at work before school-time in the morning and during play-hours in the afternoon; could hardly be induced to join the school games, and never willingly had a book out of his hand. At this time he won easily all the literature prizes of the school, and, in addition to his proper work, imposed on himself such voluntary tasks as the translation of the whole Æneid in prose. He devoured all the books of history, travel, and fiction in the school library, and was forever borrowing more from the friend who tells the story. "In my mind's eye I now see him at supper, sitting back on the form from the table, holding the folio volume of Burnet's 'History of his Own Time' between himself and the table, eating his meal from beyond it. This work, and Leigh Hunt's' Examiner'-which my father took in, and I used to lend to Keats-no doubt laid the foundation of his love of civil and religious liberty."

But the books which Keats read with the greatest eagerness of all were books of ancient mythology, and he seemed literally to learn by heart the contents of Tooke's Pantheon, Lempriere's Dictionary, and the school abridgment by Tindal of Spence's Polymetis-the first the most foolish and dull, the last the most scholarly and polite, of the various handbooks in which the ancient fables were presented in those days to the apprehension of youth.

Trouble fell upon Keats in the midst of these ardent studies of his latter school-days. His mother had been for some time in failing health. First she was disabled by chronic rheumatism, and at last fell into a rapid consumption, which carried her off in February, 1810. We are told with what devotion her eldest boy attended her sick bed, " he sat up whole nights with her in a great chair, would suffer nobody to give her medicine, or even cook her food, but himself, and read novels to her in her intervals of ease -and how bitterly he mourned for her when she was gone

[ocr errors]

"he gave way to such impassioned and prolonged grief (hiding himself in a nook under the master's desk) as awakened the liveliest pity and sympathy in all who saw him." In the July following, Mrs. Jennings, being desirous to make the best provision she could for her orphan grandchildren, "in consideration of the natural love and affection which she had for them," executed a deed putting them under the care of two guardians, to whom she made over, to be held in trust for their benefit from the date of the instrument, the chief part of the property which she derived from her late husband under his will.' The guardians were Mr. Rowland Sandell, merchant, and Mr. Richard Abbey, a wholesale tea-dealer in Pancras Lane. Mrs. Jennings sur

1 Rawlings v. Jennings. See Appendix, p. 219.

vived the execution of this deed more than four years,' but Mr. Abbey, with the consent of his co-trustee, seems at once to have taken up all the responsibilities of the trust. Under his authority John Keats was withdrawn from school at the close of this same year 1810, when he was just fifteen, and made to put on harness for the practical work of life. With no opposition, so far as we learn, on his own part, he was bound apprentice for a term of five years to a surgeon at Edmonton named Hammond. The only picture we have of him in this capacity has been left by R. H. Horne, the author of Orion, who came as a small boy to the Enfield school just after Keats had left it. One day in winter Mr. Hammond had driven over to attend the school, and Keats with him. Keats was standing with his head sunk in a brown study, holding the horse, when some of the boys, who knew his school reputation for pugnacity, dared Horne to throw a snowball at him, which Horne did, hitting Keats in the back, and then taking headlong to his heels, to his surprise got off scot free.2 Keats during his apprenticeship used on his own account to be often to and fro between the Edmonton surgery and the Enfield school. His newly awakened passion for the pleasures of literature and the imagination was not to be stifled, and whenever he could spare time from his work, he plunged back into his school occupations of reading and translating. He finished at this time his translation of the Eneid, and was in the habit of walking over to Enfield once a week or oftener to see his friend Cowden Clarke, and to exchange books and "travel in

1 Mrs. Alice Jennings was buried at St. Stephen's, Coleman Street, December 19, 1814, aged 78. (Communication from the Rev. J. W. Pratt, M.A.)

"I owe this anecdote to Mr. Gosse, who had it direct from Horne.

the realms of gold" with him. In summer weather the two would sit in a shady arbour in the old school garden, the elder reading poetry to the younger, and enjoying his looks and exclamations of enthusiasm. On a momen

tous day for Keats, Cowden Clarke introduced him for the first time to Spenser, reading him the Epithalamium in the afternoon, and lending him the Faerie Queene to take away the same evening. It has been said, and truly, that no one who has not had the good fortune to be attracted to that poem in boyhood can ever completely enjoy it. The maturer student, appreciate as he may its inexhaustible beauties and noble temper, can hardly fail to be in some degree put out by its arbitrary forms of rhyme and diction, and wearied by its melodious redundance, he will perceive the perplexity and discontinuousness of the allegory, and the absence of real and breathing humanity, even the failure at times of clearness of vision and strength of grasp, amidst all that luxuriance of decorative and symbolic invention, and prodigality of romantic incident and detail. It is otherwise with the uncritical faculties and greedy apprehension of boyhood. For them there is no poetical revelation like the Faerie Queene, no pleasure equal to that of floating for the first time along that everbuoyant stream of verse, by those shores and forests of enchantment, glades and wildernesses alive with glancing figures of knight and lady, oppressor and champion, mage and Saracen-with masque and combat, pursuit and rescue, the chivalrous shapes and hazards of the woodland, and beauty triumphant or in distress. Through the new world thus opened to him Keats went ranging with delight: "ramping" is Cowden Clarke's word; he showed, moreover, his own instinct for the poetical art by fastening with critical enthusiasm on epithets of special felicity or power.

For instance, says his friend, "he hoisted himself up, and looked burly and dominant, as he said, 'What an image that is-sea-shouldering whales!" Spenser has been often proved not only a great awakener of the love of poetry in youth, but a great fertilizer of the germs of original poetical power where they exist; and Charles Brown, the most intimate friend of Keats during two later years of his life, states positively that it was to the inspiration of the Faerie Queene that his first notion of attempting to write was due. "Though born to be a poet, he was ignorant of his birthright until he had completed his eighteenth year. It was the Faerie Queene that awakened his genius. In Spenser's fairy-land he was enchanted, breathed in a new world, and became another being; till, enamoured of the stanza, he attempted to imitate it, and succeeded. This account of the sudden development of his poetic powers I first received from his brothers, and afterwards from himself. This, his earliest attempt, the 'Imitation of Spenser,' is in his first volume of poems, and it is peculiarly interesting to those acquainted with his history.' Cowden Clarke places the attempt two years earlier, but his memory for dates was, as he owns, the vaguest, and we may fairly assume him to have been mistaken.

99 1

After he had thus first become conscious within himself of the impulse of poetical composition, Keats went on writing occasional sonnets and other verses; secretly and shyly at first like all young poets; at least it was not until two years later, in the spring of 1815, that he showed anything he had written to his friend and confidant, Cowden Clarke. In the meantime a change had taken place in his way of life. In the summer or autumn of 1814, more

[blocks in formation]
« AnteriorContinua »