Imatges de pÓgina

She kiss'd it with a lip more chill than stone,
And put it in her bosom, where it dries
And freezes utterly unto the bone

Those dainties made to still an infant's cries:
Then 'gan she work again; nor stay'd her care,
But to throw back at times her veiling hair."

The lines are not all of equal workmanship, but the scene is realised with unerring vision. The swift despairing gaze of the girl, anticipating with too dire a certainty the realisation of her dream; the simile in the third and fourth lines, emphasizing the clearness of that certainty, and at the same time relieving its terror by an image of beauty; the new simile of the lily, again striking the note of beauty, while it intensifies the impression of her rooted fixity of posture and purpose; the sudden solution of that fixity, with the final couplet, into vehement action, as she begins to dig "more fervently than misers can" (what a commentary on the relative strength of passions might be drawn from this simple text!); then the first reward of her toil, in the shape of a relic, not ghastly, but beautiful both in itself and for the tenderness of which it is a token; her womanly action in kissing it and putting it in her bosom, while all the woman and mother in her is in the same words revealed to us as blighted by the tragedy of her life; then the resumption and continuance of her labours, with gestures once more of vital dramatic truth as well as grace—to imagine and to write like this is the privilege of the best poets only, and even the best have not often combined such concentrated force and beauty of conception with such a limpid and flowing ease of narrative. Poetry had always come to Keats, as he considered it ought to come, as naturally as leaves to a tree; and now that it came of a quality like this, he had fairly earned the right,

which his rash youth had too soon arrogated, to look down on the fine artificers of the school of Pope. In comparison with the illuminating power of true imaginative poetry, the closest rhetorical condensations of that school seem loose and thin, their most glittering points and aphorisms dull; nay, those who admire them most justly will know better than to think the two kinds of writing comparable.


After the completion of Isabella followed the Scotch tour, of which the only poetic fruits of value were the lines on Meg Merrilies and those on Fingal's Cave. Returning in shaken health to the bedside of a brother mortally ill, Keats plunged at once into the most arduous poetic labour he had yet undertaken. This was the composition of Hyperion.' The subject had been long in his mind, and both in the text and the preface of Endymion he indicated his intention to attempt it. At first he thought of the poem to be written as a romance;" but under the influence of Paradise Lost, and no doubt also considering the height and vastness of the subject, his plan changed to that of a blank verse epic in ten books. His purpose was to sing the Titanomachia, or warfare of the carlier Titanic dynasty with the later Olympian dynasty of the Greek gods; and in particular one episode of that warfare, the dethronement of the sun-god Hyperion and the assumption of his kindgom by Apollo. Critics, even intelligent critics, sometimes complain that Keats should have taken this and other subjects of his art from what they call the "dead" mythology of ancient Greece. As if that mythology could ever die; as if the ancient fables, in passing out of the transitory state of things be

1 As to the date when Hyperion was written, see Appendix, p. 225; and as to the error by which Keats's later recast of his work has been taken for an earlier draft, ibid., p. 226.

lieved into the state of things remembered and cherished in imagination, had not put on a second life more enduring and more fruitful than the first. Faiths as faiths per

ish one after another, but each in passing away bequeaths for the enrichment of the after-world whatever elements it has contained of imaginative or moral truth or beauty. The polytheism of ancient Greece, embodying the instinctive effort of the brightliest-gifted human race to explain its earliest experiences of nature and civilization, of the thousand moral and material forces, cruel or kindly, which environ and control the life of man on earth, is rich beyond measure in such elements; and if the modern world at any time fails to value them, it is the modern mind which is in so far dead, and not they. One of the great symptoms of returning vitality in the imagination of Europe towards the close of the last century, was its awakening to the forgotten charın of past modes of faith and life. When men, in the earlier part of that century, spoke of Greek antiquity, it was in stale and borrowed terms which showed that they had never felt its power; just as, when they spoke of nature, it was in set phrases that showed that they had never looked at her On matters of daily social experience the gifts of observation and of reason were brilliantly exercised, but all the best thoughts. of the time were thoughts of the street, the mart, and the assembly. The human genius was for the time being like some pilgrim long detained within city walls, and unused to see or think of anything beyond them. At length resuming its march, it emerged on open ground, where it fell to enjoying with a forgotten zest the beauties of the earth and sky, and whence, at the same time, it could turn back to gaze on regions it had long left behind, discerning with new clearness and a new emotion here, under cloud

and rainbow, the forests and spired cities of the Middle Age, there, in serener light, the hills and havens and level fanes of Hellas.

The great leader and pioneer of the modern spirit on this new phase of its pilgrimage was Goethe, who with deliberate effort and self-discipline climbed to heights commanding an equal survey over the medieval and the classic past. We had in England had an earlier, shyer, and far less effectual pioneer in Gray. As time went on, poet after poet arose and sang more freely, one the glories of nature, another the enchantments of the Middle Age, another the Greek beauty and joy of life. Keats, when his time came, showed himself, all young and untutored as he was, freshly and powerfully inspired to sing of all three alike. He does not, as we have said, write of Greek things in a Greek manner. Something, indeed, in Hyperion-at least in the first two books-he has caught from Paradise Lost of the high restraint and calm which was common to the Greeks and Milton. But to realise how far he is in workmanship from the Greek purity and precision of outline, and firm definition of individual images, we have only to think of his palace of Hyperion, with its vague, far-dazzling pomps and phantom terrors of coming doom. This is the most sustained and celebrated passage of the poem. Or let us examine one of its most characteristic images from nature:

"As when, upon a tranced summer night,

Those green-robed senators of mighty woods,
Tall oaks, branch-charmed by the earnest stars,
Dream, and so dream all night without a stir."

Not to the simplicity of the Greek, but to the complexity of the modern sentiment of nature, it belongs to try and

express, by such a concourse of metaphors and epithets, every effect at once, to the most fugitive, which a forest scene by starlight can have upon the mind: the pre-eminence of the oaks among the other trees-their aspect of human venerableness-their verdure, unseen in the darkness -the sense of their preternatural stillness and suspended life in an atmosphere that seems to vibrate with mysterious influences communicated between earth and sky.'

But though Keats sees the Greek world from afar, he sees it truly. The Greek touch is not his, but in his own rich and decorated English way he writes with a sure insight into the vital meaning of Greek ideas. For the story of the war of Titans and Olympians he had nothing to guide him except scraps from the ancient writers, principally Hesiod, as retailed by the compilers of classical dictionaries; and from the scholar's point of view his version, we can see, would at many points have been arbitrary, mixing up Latin conceptions and nomenclature with Greek, and introducing much new matter of his own invention. But as to the essential meaning of that warfare and its result the dethronement of an older and ruder worship by one more advanced and humane, in which ideas of ethics and of arts held a larger place beside ideas of nature and her brute powers-as to this, it could not possibly be divined more truly, or illustrated with more beauty and force, than by Keats in the speech of Oceanus in the Sec

1 If we want to see Greek themes treated in a Greek manner by predecessors or contemporaries of Keats, we can do so-though only on a cameo scale-in the best idyls of Chénier in France, as L'Aveugle, or Le Jeune Malade, or of Landor in England, as the Hamadryad, or Enallos and Cymodamia; poems which would hardly have been written otherwise at Alexandria in the days of Theocritus.

« AnteriorContinua »