Imatges de pàgina

ting the door swore nobody should go out. His mother wanted to do so, but he threatened her so furiously she began to cry, and was obliged to wait till somebody through the window saw her position and came to the rescue.” Another trait of the poet's childhood, mentioned also by Haydon, on the authority of a gammer who had known him from his birth, is that when he was first learning to speak, instead of answering sensibly, he had a trick of making a rhyme to the last word people said and then laughing.

The parents were ambitious for their boys, and would have liked to send them to Harrow, but thinking this beyond their means, chose the school kept by the Rev. John Clarke at Enfield. The brothers of Mrs. Keats had been educated here, and the school was one of good repute, and of exceptionally pleasant aspect and surroundings. Traces of its ancient forest character lingered long, and indeed linger yet, about the neighbourhood of the picturesque small suburban town of Enfield, and the district was one especially affected by City men of fortune for their homes. The school-house occupied by Mr. Clarke had been originally built for a rich West-India merchant, in the finest style of early Georgian classic architecture, and stood in a pleasant and spacious garden at the lower end of the town. When, years afterwards, the site was used for a railway station, the old house was for some time allowed to stand; but later it was taken down, and the façade, with its fine proportions and rich ornaments in moulded brick, was transported to the South Kensington Museum as a choice example of the style.

Not long after Keats had been put to school he lost his father, who was killed by a fall from his horse as he rode home at night from Southgate. This was on the 16th of

April, 1804. Within twelve months his mother had put off her weeds and taken a second husband-one William Rawlings, described as "of Moorgate, in the city of London, stable-keeper," presumably, therefore, the successor of her first husband in the management of her father's business. This marriage turned out unhappily. It was soon followed by a separation, and Mrs. Rawlings went with her children to live at Edmonton, in the house of her mother, Mrs. Jennings, who was just about this time left a widow.' In the correspondence of the Keats brothers after they were grown up no mention is ever made of their stepfather, of whom, after the separation, the family seem to have lost all knowledge. The household in Church Street, Edmonton, was well enough provided for, Mr. Jennings having left a fortune of over £13,000, of which, in addition to other legacies, he bequeathed a capital yielding £200 a year to his widow absolutely; one yielding £50 a year to his daughter Frances Rawlings, with reversion to her Keats children after her death; and £1000 to be separately held in trust for the said children, and divided among them on their coming of age. Between this home, then, and the neighbouring Enfield school, where he was in due time joined by his younger brothers, the next four or five years of Keats's boyhood (1806-1810) were passed in sufficient comfort and pleasantness. He did not live to attain the years, or the success, of men who write their reminiscences; and almost the only recollections he has left of his own early days refer to holiday times in his grandmother's house at Edmonton. They are conveyed in some rhymes which he wrote years afterwards, by way of foolishness, to amuse his young sister, and testify 1 John Jennings died March 8, 1805.


2 Rawlings v. Jennings. See below, p. 137, and Appendix, p. 219.

to a partiality, common also to little boys not of genius, for dabbling by the brookside-

"In spite

Of the might

Of the Maid,
Nor afraid

Of his granny-good ”

and for keeping small fishes in tubs.

If we learn little of Keats's early days from his own lips, we have sufficient testimony as to the impression which he made on his school companions; which was that of a boy all spirit and generosity, vehement both in tears and laughter, handsome, passionate, pugnacious, placable, lovable, a natural leader and champion among his fellows. But beneath this bright and mettlesome outside there lay deep in his nature, even from the first, a strain of painful sensibility, making him subject to moods of unreasonable suspicion and self-tormenting melancholy. These he was accustomed to conceal from all except his brothers, between whom and himself there existed the very closest of fraternal ties. George, the second brother, had all John's spirit of manliness and honour, with a less impulsive disposition and a cooler blood. From a boy he was the bigger and stronger of the two; and at school found himself continually involved in fights for, and not unfrequently with, his small, indomitably fiery elder brother. Tom, the youngest, was always delicate, and an object of protecting care as well as the warmest affection to the other two. The singularly strong family sentiment that united the three brothers extended naturally also to their sister, then a child; and in a more remote and ideal fashion to their uncle by the mother's side, Captain Midgley John Jen

nings, a tall navy officer who had served with some distinction under Duncan at Camperdown, and who impressed the imagination of the boys, in those days of militant British valour by land and sea, as a model of manly prowess. It may be remembered that there was a much more distinguished naval hero of the time who bore their own -the gallant Admiral Sir Richard Godwin Keats of the Superb, afterwards governor of Greenwich Hospital; and he, like their father, came from the west-country, being the son of a Bideford clergyman. But it seems clear that the family of our Keats claimed no connection with that of the Admiral.


Here are some of George Keats's recollections, written after the death of his elder brother, and referring partly to their school-days and partly to John's character after he was grown up:

"I loved him from boyhood, even when he wronged me, for the goodness of his heart and the nobleness of his spirit. Before we left school we quarrelled often and fought fiercely, and I can safely say, and my schoolfellows will bear witness, that John's temper was the cause of all, still we were more attached than brothers ever are.

"From the time we were boys at school, where we loved, jangled, and fought alternately, until we separated in 1818, I in a great measure relieved him by continual sympathy, explanation, and inexhaustible spirits and good humour, from many a bitter fit of hypochondriasm. He avoided teazing any one with his miseries but Tom and myself, and often asked our forgiveness; venting and discussing them gave him relief."

Let us turn now from these honest and warm brotherly reminiscences to their confirmation in the words of two of Keats's school-friends; and first in those of his junior, Edward Holmes, afterwards author of the Life of Mozart:

1 Captain Jennings died October 8, 1808.

"Keats was in childhood not attached to books. His penchant was for fighting. He would fight any one-morning, noon, and night, his brother among the rest. It was meat and drink to him. . . . His favourites were few; after they were known to fight readily he seemed to prefer them for a sort of grotesque and buffoon humour.... He was a boy whom any one, from his extraordinary vivacity and personal beauty, might easily fancy would become great—but rather in some military capacity than in literature. You will remark that this taste came out rather suddenly and unexpectedly. . . . In all active exercises he excelled. The generosity and daring of his character, with the extreme beauty and animation of his face, made, I remember, an impression on me; and being some years his junior, I was obliged to woo his friendship, in which I succeeded, but not till I had fought several battles. This violence and vehemence — this pugnacity and generosity of disposition-in passions of tears or outrageous fits of laughter — always in extremes will help to paint Keats in his boyhood. Associated as they were with an extraordinary beauty of person and expression, these qualities captivated the boys, and no one was more popular." 1

Entirely to the same effect is the account of Keats given by a school friend seven or eight years older than himself, to whose appreciation and encouragement the world most likely owes it that he first ventured into poetry. This was the son of the master, Charles Cowden Clarke, who towards the close of a long life, during which he had deserved well of literature in more ways than one, wrote retrospectively of Keats:

"He was a favourite with all. Not the less beloved was he for having a highly pugnacious spirit, which when roused was one of the most picturesque exhibitions-off the stage-I ever saw.... Upon one occasion, when an usher, on account of some impertinent behaviour, had boxed his brother Tom's ears, John rushed up, put himself into the received posture of offence, and, it was said, struck the usher -who could, so to say, have put him in his pocket. His passion at

1 Houghton MSS.

« AnteriorContinua »