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When he came down from these heights of feeling, and brought himself soberly to face the facts of his existence, Keats felt himself compelled, in those days while he was producing, "out of the mere yearning and fondness he had for the beautiful," poem after poem that are among the treasures of the English language, to consider whether as a practical matter he could or ought to continue to apply himself to literature at all. In spite of his magnanimous first reception of the Blackwood and Quarterly gibes, we can see that as time went on he began more and more to feel both his pride wounded and his prospects darkened by them. Reynolds had hit the mark, as to the material harm which the reviews were capable of inflicting, when he wrote, the year before: "Certain it is that hundreds of fashionable and flippant readers will henceforth set down this young poet as a pitiable and nonsensical writer, merely on the assertions of some single heartless critic who has just energy enough to despise what is good." Such in fact was exactly the reputation which Blackwood and the Quarterly had succeeded in making for Keats, except among a small private circle of admirers. Of praise and the thirst for praise he continues to speak in as manly and sane a tone as ever, especially in the two sonnets On Fame; and in the Ode to Indolence declares
"For I would not be dieted with praise,
Again in the same ode he speaks of his "demon Poesy as "a maiden most unmeek," whom he loves the better the more blame is heaped on her. At the same time he shows his sense of the practical position which the reviews had made for him when he writes to his brother: "These reviews are getting more and more powerful, especially the
Quarterly.. I was in hopes that as people saw,
people saw, as they
must do, all the trickery and iniquity of these plagues, they would scout them; but no, they are like the spectators at the Westminster cockpit, and do not care who wins or loses." And as a consequence he adds, presently, "I have been, at different times, turning it in my head whether I should go to Edinburgh and study for a physician. I am afraid I should not take kindly to it; I am sure I could not take fees; and yet I should like to do so; it is not worse than writing poems, and hanging them up to be flyblown on the Review shambles." A little later he mentions to his sister Fanny an idea he has of taking a voyage or two as surgeon on board an East Indiaman. But Brown, more than ever impressed during these last months with the power and promise of his friend's genius, would not hear of this plan, and persuaded him to abandon it and throw himself again upon literature. Keats being for the moment unable to get at any of his money, Brown advanced him enough to live on through the summer; and it was agreed that he should go and work in the country, and that Brown should follow him.
Towards the end of July Keats accordingly left Hampstead, and went first to join his friend Rice in lodgings at Shanklin. Rice's health was at this time worse than ever, and Keats himself was far from well-his chest weak, his nerves unstrung, his heart, as we can see by his letters to Fanny Brawne, incessantly distracted between the pains and joys of love. These love-letters of Keats are written with little or none of the bright ease and play of mind which make his correspondence with his friends and family so attractive. Pleasant passages, indeed, occur in them, but in the main they are constrained and distressing, showing him a prey, despite his efforts to master himself and
be reasonable, to an almost abject intensity and fretfulness of passion. An enraptured but an untrustful lover, alternately rejoicing and chafing at his bondage, and passing through a hundred conflicting extremes of feeling in an hour, he found in the fever of work and composition his only antidote against the fever of his love-sickness. As long as Rice and he were together at Shanklin, the two ailing and anxious men, firm friends as they were, depressed and did each other harm. It was better when Brown with his settled health and spirits came to join them. Soon afterwards Rice left, and Brown and Keats then got to work diligently at the task they had set before themselves, that of writing a tragedy suitable for the stage. What other struggling man of letters has not at one time or another shared the hope which animated them, that this way lay the road to success and competence? Brown, whose Russian opera had made a hit in its day, and brought him in £500, was supposed to possess the requisite stage experience, and to him were assigned the plot and construction of the play, while Keats undertook to compose the dialogue. The subject was one taken from the history of the Emperor Otho the Great. The two friends sat opposite each other at the same table, and Keats wrote scene after scene as Brown sketched it out to him, in each case without enquiring what was to come next, until the end of the fourth act, when he took the conduct of the rest into his own hands. Besides the joint work by means of which he thus hoped, at least in sanguine hours, to find an escape from material difficulties, Keats was busily engaged by himself in writing a new Greek tale in rhymed heroics, Lamia. But a cloud of depression continued to hang over him. The climate of Shanklin was against him: their lodgings were under the cliff, and from the southeast, as he afterwards wrote, came the damps of the sea,
which having no egress, the air would for days together take on an unhealthy idiosyncrasy altogether enervating and weakening as a city smoke." After a stay of five or six weeks the friends made up their minds to change their quarters, and went in the second week of August to Winchester. The old cathedral city, with its peaceful closes breathing antiquity, its clear-coursing streams and beautiful elm-shadowed meadow walks, and the nimble and pure air of its surrounding downs, exactly suited Keats, who quickly improved both in health and spirits. The days which he spent here, from the middle of August to the middle of October, were the last good days of his life. Working with a steady intensity of application, he managed to steel himself for the time being against the importunity of his passion, although never without a certain feverishness in the effort.
His work continued to be chiefly on Lamia, with the concluding part of Otho and the beginning of a new tragedy on the story of King Stephen; in this last he laboured alone, without accepting help from Brown. Early in September Brown left Winchester to go on a visit to Bedhampton. Immediately afterwards a letter from America compelled Keats to go to town and arrange with Mr. Abbey for the despatch of fresh remittances to his brother George. He dared not, to use his own words, “venture into the fire" by going to see his mistress at Hampstead, but staid apparently with Mr. Taylor in Fleet Street, and was back on the fourth day at Winchester, where he spent the following ten days or fortnight in solitude. During this interval he took up Hyperion again, but made up his mind to go no farther with it, having got to feel its style and method too Miltonic and artificial. Lamia he had finished, and his chief present occupation was in revising the Eve of St. Agnes, studying Italian in the pages of Ariosto,
and writing up one of his long and full journal-letters to brother and sister George. The season was fine, and the beauty of the walks and the weather entering into his spirit, prompted also in these days the last, and one cer tainly of the happiest of his odes, that To Autumn. To the fragment of St. Mark's Eve, begun or planned, as we have seen, the January before, he now added lines inspired at once by the spirit of city quietude, which his letters show to have affected him deeply here at Winchester, and by the literary example of Chatterton, for whom his old admiration had of late returned in full force.
The wholesome brightness of the early autumn continuing to sustain and soothe him, Keats made in these days a vigorous effort to rally his moral powers, to banish overpassionate and morbid feelings, and to put himself on a right footing with the world. The letter to America already mentioned, and others written at the same time to Reynolds, Taylor, Dilke, Brown, and Haydon, are full of evidences of this spirit. The ill success of his brother in his American speculations shall serve, he is determined, as a spur to his own exertions; and now that real troubles are upon them, he will show that he can bear them better than those of imagination. The imaginary nail a man down for a sufferer, as on a cross; the real spur him up into an agent. He has been passing his time between reading, writing, and fretting; the last he now intends to give up, and stick to the other two. He does not consider he has any just cause of complaint against the world; he has done nothing as yet except for the amusement of a few people predisposed for sentiment, and is convinced that anything really fine will make its way. "What reviewers can put a hindrance to must be a nothing—or mediocre, which is worse." With reference to his own plans for the