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which an English translation used to be attributed to Chaucer, and is included in the early editions of his works. This title had caught Keats's fancy, and in the Eve of St. Agnes he makes Lorenzo waken Madeline by playing beside her bed
66 an ancient ditty, long since mute,
In Provence call'd 'La belle dame sans merci.''
The syllables continuing to haunt him, he wrote in the course of the spring or summer (1819) a poem of his own on the theme, which has no more to do with that of Chartier than Chartier has really to do with Provence.' Keats's ballad can hardly be said to tell a story, but rather sets before us, with imagery drawn from the medieval world of enchantment and knight-errantry, a type of the wasting power of love, when either adverse fate or deluded choice makes of love not a blessing but a banc. The plight which the poet thus shadows forth is partly that of his own soul in thraldom. Every reader must feel how truly the imagery expresses the passion; how powerfully, through these fascinating old-world symbols, the universal heart of man is made to speak. To many students (of whom the present writer is one) the union of infinite tenderness with a weird intensity, the conciseness and purity of the poetic form, the wild yet simple magic of the cadences, the perfect "inevitable" union of sound and sense, make of La Belle Dame sans Merci the master-piece, not only among the shorter poems of Keats, but even (if any single master-piece must be chosen) among them all.
1 Chartier was born at Bayeux. His Belle Dame sans Merci is a poem of over eighty stanzas, the introduction in narrative and the rest in dialogue, setting forth the obduracy shown by a lady to her wooer, and his consequent despair and death. (For the date of composition of Keats's poem, see Appendix, p. 226.)
Before finally giving up Hyperion, Keats had conceived and written, during his summer months at Shanklin and Winchester, another narrative poem on a Greek subject, but one of those where Greek life and legend come nearest to the mediæval, and give scope both for scenes of wonder and witchcraft, and for the stress and vehemence of passion. I speak, of course, of Lamia, the story of the serpent-lady, both enchantress and victim of enchantments, who loves a youth of Corinth, and builds for him by her art a palace of delights, until their happiness is shattered by the scrutiny of intrusive and cold-blooded wisdom. Keats had found the germ of the story, quoted from Philostratus, in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. In versifying it he went back once more to rhymed heroics, handling them, however, not as in Endymion, but in a manner founded on that of Dryden, with a free use of the Alexandrine, a more sparing one of the overflow and the irregular pause, and of disyllabic rhymes none at all. In the measure as thus treated by Keats there is a fire and grace of movement, a lithe and serpentine energy, well suited to the theme, and as effective in its way as the victorious march of Dryden himself. Here is an example where the poetry of Greek mythology is finely woven into the rhetoric of love:
"Leave thee alone! Look back! Ah, goddess, see
For pity do not this sad heart belie-
And here an instance of the power and reality of scenic imagination:
"As men talk in a dream, so Corinth all,
And all her populous streets and temples lewd,
Of some arch'd temple door, or dusty colonnade."
No one can deny the truth of Keats's own criticism on Lamia when he says, "I am certain there is that sort of fire in it which must take hold of people in some way— give them either pleasant or unpleasant sensation." There is, perhaps, nothing in all his writing so vivid, or that so burns itself in upon the mind, as the picture of the serpentwoman awaiting the touch of Hermes to transform her, followed by the agonized process of the transformation itself. Admirably told, though perhaps somewhat disproportionately for its place in the poem, is the introductory episode of Hermes and his nymph; admirably again the concluding scene, where the merciless gaze of the philosopher exorcises his pupil's dream of love and beauty, and the lover in forfeiting his illusion forfeits life. This thrilling vividness of narration in particular points, and the fine melodious vigour of much of the verse, have caused some students to give Lamia almost the first, if not the first, place among Keats's narrative poems. But surely for this it is in some parts too feverish and in others too
unequal. It contains descriptions not entirely successful, as, for instance, that of the palace reared by Lamia's magic, which will not bear comparison with other and earlier dream-palaces of the poet's building. And it has reflective passages, as that in the first book beginning, "Let the mad poets say whate'er they please," and the first fifteen lines of the second, where, from the winning and truly poetic ease of his style at its best, Keats relapses into something too like Leigh Hunt's and his own early strain of affected ease and fireside triviality. He shows, at the same time, signs of a return to his former rash experiments in language. The positive virtues of beauty and felicity in his diction had never been attended by the negative virtue of strict correctness. Thus, in the Eve of St. Agnes we had to "brook" tears for to check or forbear them; in Hyperion, " portion'd" for "proportion'd," eyes that "fever out," a chariot "foam'd along." Some of these verbal licences possess a force that makes them pass, but not so in Lamia the adjectives "psalterian" and "piazzian," the verb "to labyrinth," and the participle "daft," as if from an imaginary active verb meaning to daze.
In the moral which the tale is made to illustrate there is, moreover, a weakness. Keats himself gives us fair warning against attaching too much importance to any opinion which in a momentary mood we may find him uttering. But the doctrine he sets forth in Lamia is one which, from the reports of his conversation, we know him to have held with a certain consistency:
"Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air and gnomed mine-
The tender-person'd Lamia melt into a shade."
Campbell has set forth the same doctrine more fully in The Rainbow; but one sounder, braver, and of better hope, by which Keats would have done well to stand, is preached by Wordsworth in his famous Preface.
Passing now from the narrative to the reflective portion of Keats's work during this period-it was on the odes, we saw, that he was chiefly occupied in the spring months of 1819, from the completion of St. Agnes's Eve at Chichester in January until the commencement of Lamia and Otho the Great at Shanklin in June. These odes of Keats constitute a class apart in English literature, in form and manner neither lineally derived from any earlier, nor much resembling any contemporary, verse. In what he calls the "roundelay" of the Indian maiden in Endymion he had made his most elaborate lyrical attempt until now; and while for once approaching Shelley in lyric ardour and height of pitch, had equalled Coleridge in touches of wild musical beauty and far-sought romance. His new odes are
They are writ
comparatively simple and regular in form. ten in a strain intense, indeed, but meditative and brooding, and quite free from the declamatory and rhetorical elements which we are accustomed to associate with the idea of an ode. Of the five composed in the spring of 1819, two, those on Psyche and the Grecian Urn, are inspired by the old Greek world of imagination and art; two, those on Melancholy and the Nightingale, by moods of the poet's own mind; while the fifth, that on Indolence, partakes in a weaker degree of both inspirations.
In the Psyche (where the stanza is of a lengthened type