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I fancy the very air of a deteriorating quality. I fancy the flowers, all precocious, have an Acrasian spell about them; I feel able to beat off the Devonshire waves like soap-froth. I think it well for the honour of Britain that Julius Cæsar did not first land in this county. A Devonshirer, standing on his native hills, is not a distinct object; he does not show against the light; a wolf or two would dispossess him.” 1
Besides his constant occupation in watching and cheering his invalid brother, who had a relapse just after be came down, Keats was busy during these Devonshire days seeing through the press the last sheets of Endymion. He also composed, with the exception of the few verses he had begun at Hampstead, the whole of Isabella, the first of his longer poems written with real maturity of art and certainty of touch. At the same time he was reading and appreciating Milton as he had never done before. With the minor poems he had been familiar from a boy, but had not been attracted by Paradise Lost until first Severn, and then more energetically Bailey, had insisted that this was a reproach to him; and he now turned to that poem, and penetrated with the grasp and swiftness of genius, as his marginal criticisms show, into the very essence of its power and beauty. His correspondence with his friends, particularly Bailey and Reynolds, is, during this same time, unusually sustained and full. It was in all senses manifestly a time with Keats of rapidly maturing power, and in some degree also of threatening gloom. The mysteries of existence and of suffering, and the “deeps of good and evil,” were beginning for the first time to press habitually on his thoughts. In that beautiful and interesting letter to Reynolds, in which he makes the comparison of human life to a mansion of many apartments, it is his own present state which he thus describes :
1 See Appendix, p. 222.
“We no sooner get into the second chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere. We see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there forever in delight. However, among the effects this breathing is father of, is that tremendous one of sharpening one's vision into the heart and nature of man, of convincing one's nerves that the world is full of misery and heartbreak, pain, sickness, and oppression, whereby this Chamber of Maiden-thought becomes gradually darkened, and at the same time, on all sides of it, many doors are set open-but all dark—all leading to dark passages. We see not the balance of good and evil; we are in a mist, we are in that state, we feel the ‘Burden of the Mystery.' A few weeks earlier, addressing to the same friend the last of his rhymed Epistles, Keats had thus expressed the mood which came upon him as he sat taking the beauty of the evening on a rock at the sea's edge :
“ 'Twas a quiet eve,
In a like vein, recalling to Bailey a chance saying of his, • Why should woman suffer ?”—“Aye, why should she ?" writes Keats. “By heavens, I'd coin my very soul, and drop my blood for drachmas.' These things are, and he who feels how incompetent the most skyey knight-errantry is to heal this bruised fairness, is like a sensitive leaf on the hot hand of thought.” And again, “ Were it in my choice, I would reject a Petrarchal coronation-on account of my dying day, and because women have cancers. I should not by rights speak in this tone to you, for it is an incendiary spirit that would do so.”
Not the general tribulations of the race only, but particular private anxieties, were pressing in these days on Keats's thoughts. The shadow of illness, though it had hitherto scarcely touched bimself, hung menacingly not only over his brother but his best friends. He speaks of it in a tone of courage and gayety which his real apprehensions, we can feel, belie. “Banish money”-he had written in Falstaff's vein, at starting for the Isle of Wight a year ago— “ Banish sofas—Banish wine-Banish music; but right Jack Health, honest Jack Health, true Jack Health-Banish Health and Banish all the world.” Writing now from Teignmouth to Reynolds, who was down during these weeks with rheumatic fever, he complains laughingly, but with an undercurrent of sad foreboding, how he can go nowhere but Sickness is of the company, and says his friends will have to cut that fellow, or he must cut them.
Nearer and more pressing than such apprehensions was the pain of a family break-up now imminent. George Keats had made up his mind to emigrate to America, and embark his capital, or as much of it as he could get possession of, in business there. Besides the wish to push his own fortunes, a main motive of this resolve on George's part was the desire to be in a position as quickly as possible to help, or, if need be, support his poet-brother. He persuaded the girl to whom he had long been attached, Miss Wylie, to share his fortunes, and it was settled that they were to be married and sail early in the summer. Keats came up from Teignmouth in May to see the last of his brother, and he and Tom settled again in their old lodgings in Well Walk. He had a warm affection and regard for his new sister-in-law, and was in so far delighted for George's sake. But at the same time he felt life and its prospects overcast. He writes to Bailey, after his outburst about the sufferings of women, that he is never alone now without rejoicing that there is such a thing as death -without placing his ultimate in the glory of dying for a great human purpose. And after recounting his causes of depression he recovers himself, and concludes: “Life must be undergone; and I certainly derive some consolation from the thought of writing one or two more poems before it ceases."
With reference to his poem then just appearing, and the year's work it represented, Keats was under no illusions whatever. From an early period in its composition he had fully realised its imperfections, and had written: "My ideas of it are very low, and I would write the subject thoroughly again but I am tired of it, and think the time would be better spent in writing a new romance, which I have in my eye for next summer. Rome was not built in a day, and all the good I expect from my employment this summer is the fruit of experience which I hope to gather in my next poem.” The habit of close self-observation
. and self-criticism is in most natures that possess it allied with vanity and egoism ; but it was not so in Keats, who, without a shadow of affectation, judges himself, both in his strength and weakness, as the most clear-sighted and disinterested friend might judge. He shows himself perfectly aware that in writing Endymion he has rather been working off a youthful ferment of the mind than producing a sound or satisfying work of poetry; and when the time comes to write a preface to the poem, after a first attempt lacking reticence and simplicity, and abandoned at the advice of Reynolds, he in the second quietly and beautifully says of his own work all that can justly be said in its dispraise. He warns the reader to expect "great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt rather than a deed accomplished ;” and adds most unboastfully: “It is just that this youngster should die away: a sad thought for me, if I had not some hope that while it is dwindling I may be plotting, and fitting myself for verses fit to live."
The apprehensions expressed in these words have not been fulfilled; and Endymion, so far from having died away, lives to illustrate the maxim conveyed in its own now proverbial opening line. Immature as the poem truly is in touch and method, superabundant and confused as are the sweets which it offers to the mind, still it is a thing of far too much beauty, or at least of too many beauties, to perish. Every reader must take pleasure in some of its single passages and episodes, while to the student of the poetic art the work is interesting almost as much in its weakness as its strength.