« AnteriorContinua »
future, he is determined to trust no longer to mere hopes of ultimate success, whether from plays or poems, but to turn to the natural resource of a man fit for nothing but literature," and needing to support himself by his pen: the resource, that is, of journalism and reviewing. "I will write, on the liberal side of the question, for whoever will pay me. I have not known yet what it is to be diligent. I purpose living in town in a cheap lodging, and endeavouring, for a beginning, to get the theatricals of some paWhen I can afford to compose deliberate poems, I
per. will." These words are from a letter written to Brown on the 22d of September; and further on in the same letter we find evidence of the honourable spirit of independence and unselfishness towards his friends which went together in Keats, as it too rarely does, with an affectionate willingness to accept their services at a pinch. He had been living since May on a loan from Brown and an advance from Taylor, and was uneasy at putting the former to a sacrifice. The subject, he says, is often in his mind,
"and the end of my speculations is always an anxiety for your happiness. This anxiety will not be one of the least incitements to the plan I propose pursuing. I had got into a habit of mind of looking towards you as a help in all difficulties. You will see it is a duty I owe myself to break the neck of it. I do nothing for my subsistence -make no exertion. At the end of another year you shall applaud me, not for verses, but for conduct."
Brown, returning to Winchester a few days later, found his friend unshaken in the same healthy resolutions, and however loth to lose his company, and doubtful of his power to live the life he proposed, respected their motives too much to contend against them. It was accordingly settled that the two friends should part, Brown returning to his own house at Hampstead, while Keats went to live by himself in London, and look out for employment on the press.
Isabella.-Hyperion.—The Eve of St. Agnes.—The Eve of St. Mark.La Belle Dame Sans Merci.-Lamia.-The Odes.-The Plays.
DURING the twenty months ending with his return from Winchester, as last narrated, Keats had been able, even while health and peace of mind and heart deserted him, to produce in quick succession the series of poems which give us the true measure of his powers. In the sketches and epistles of his first volume we have seen him beginning, timidly and with no clearness of aim, to make trial of his poetical resources. A year afterwards he had leapt, to use his own words, headlong into the sea, and boldly tried his strength on the composition of a long mythological romance - half romance, half parable of that passion for universal beauty of which he felt in his own bosom the restless and compulsive workings. In the execution he had done injustice to the power of poetry that was in him by letting both the exuberance of fancy and invention, and the caprice of rhyme, run away with him, and by substituting for the worn-out verbal currency of the last century a semi-Elizabethan coinage of his own, less acceptable by habit to the literary sense, and often of not a whit greater real poetic value. The experiment was rash, but when he next wrote, it became manifest that it had not been made in vain. After Endymion his work threw off, not indeed entirely its faults, but all its weakness and in
effectiveness, and shone for the first time with a full "effluence" (the phrase is Landor's) "of power and light.”
His next poem of importance was Isabella, planned and begun, as we saw, in February, 1818, and finished in the course of the next two months at Teignmouth. The subject is taken from the well-known chapter of Boccaccio which tells of the love borne by a damsel of Messina for a youth in the employ of her merchant - brothers, with its tragic close and pathetic sequel. Keats for some reason transfers the scene of the story from Messina to Florence. Nothing can be less sentimental than Boccaccio's temper, nothing more direct and free from superfluity than his style. Keats, invoking him, asks pardon for his own work as what it truly is-" An echo of thee in the North-wind sung." Not only does the English poet set the southern story in a framework of northern landscape, telling us of the Arno, for instance, how its stream
"Gurgles through straitened banks, and still doth fan
Itself with dancing bulrush, and the bream
Keeps head against the freshets,"
he further adorns and amplifies it in a northern manner, enriching it with tones of sentiment and colours of romance, and brooding over every image of beauty or passion as he calls it up. These things he does-but no longer inordinately, as heretofore. His powers of imagination and of
1 See Appendix, p. 224.
2 Decamerone, Giorn., iv. nov. 5. A very different metrical treatment of the same subject was attempted and published, almost simultaneously with that of Keats, by Barry Cornwall in his Sicilian Story (1820). Of the metrical tales from Boccaccio which Reynolds had agreed to write concurrently with Keats (see above, p. 85), two were finished and published by him after Keats's death in the volume called A Garden of Florence (1821).
expression have alike gained strength and discipline; and through the shining veils of his poetry his creations make themselves seen and felt in living shape, action, and motive. False touches and misplaced beauties are indeed not wanting. For example, in the phrase
"his erewhile timid lips grew bold
And poesied with hers in dewy rhyme,"
we have an effusively false touch, in the sugared taste not infrequent in his earliest verses. And in the call of the wicked brothers to Lorenzo
"To-day we purpose, aye this hour we mount
To spur three leagues towards the Apennine.
the last two lines are a beauty, indeed, and of the kind most characteristic of the poet, yet a beauty (as Leigh Hunt long ago pointed out) misplaced in the mouths that utter it. Moreover, the language of Isabella is still occasionally slipshod, and there are turns and passages where we feel, as we felt so often in Endymion, that the poetic will has abdicated to obey the chance dictation or suggestion of the rhyme. But these are the minor blemishes of a poem otherwise conspicuous for power and charm.
For his Italian story Keats chose an Italian metre, the octave stanza introduced in English by Wyatt and Sidney, and naturalised before long by Daniel, Drayton, and Edward Fairfax. Since their day the stanza had been little used in serious poetry, though Frere and Byron had lately revived it for the poetry of light narrative and satire, the purpose for which the epigrammatic snap and suddenness of the closing couplet in truth best fit it. Keats, however, contrived generally to avoid this effect, and handles the
measure flowingly and well in a manner suited to his tale of pathos. Over the purely musical and emotional resources of his art he shows a singular command in stanzas like that beginning, "O Melancholy, linger here awhile," repeated with variations as a kind of melodious interlude of the main narrative. And there is a brilliant alertness of imagination in such episodical passages as that where he pauses to realise the varieties of human toil contributing to the wealth of the merchant brothers. But the true test of a poem like this is that it should combine, at the essential points and central moments of action and passion, imaginative vitality and truth with beauty and charm. This test Isabella admirably bears. For instance, in the account of the vision which appears to the heroine of her lover's mouldering corpse:
"Its eyes, though wild, were still all dewy-bright
With love, and kept all phantom fear aloof
With what a true poignancy of human tenderness is the story of the apparition invested by this touch, and all its charnel horror and grimness mitigated! Or again in the stanzas describing Isabella's actions at her lover's burialplace:
"She gazed into the fresh thrown mould, as though
Then with her knife, all sudden, she began
"Soon she turn'd up a soiled glove, whereon
Her silk had play'd in purple phantasies;