« AnteriorContinua »
print them gravely, as has been done, among the Poetical Works, is to punish the levities of genius too hard.
As to the text, I have followed the autograph wherever it was possible, and in other cases the manuscript or printed version which I judged nearest the autograph ; with this exception, that I have not thought it worth while to preserve mere slips of the pen or tricks of spelling. The curious in such matters will find them religiously reproduced by Mr. Buxton Forman wherever he has had the opportunity. The poet's punctuation, on the other hand, and his use of capitals, which is odd and full of character, I have preserved. As is well known, his handwriting is as a rule clear and beautiful, quite free from unsteadiness or sign of fatigue ; and as mere specimens for the collector, few autographs can compare with these closewritten quarto (or sometimes extra folio) sheets, in which the young poet has poured out to those he loved his whole self indiscriminately, generosity and fretfulness, ardour and despondency, boyish petulance side by side with manful good sense, the tattle of suburban parlours with the speculations of a spirit unsurpassed for native poetic gift and insight.
The editor of familiar correspondence has at all times a difficult task before him in the choice what to give and what to withhold. In the case of Keats the difficulty is greater than in most, from the ferment of opposing elements and impulses in his nature, and from the extreme unreserve with which he lays himself open alike in his weakness and his strength. The other great letter-writers in English are men to some degree on their guard : men, if not of the world, at least of some worldly training and experience, and of characters in some degree formed and set. The phase of unlimited youthful expansiveness, of enthusiastic or fretful outcry, they have either escaped or left behind, and never give themselves away completely. Gray is of course an extreme case in point. With a masterly breadth of mind he unites an even finicking degree of academic fastidiousness
and personal reserve, and his correspondence charms, not by impulse or openness, but by urbanity and irony, by ripeness of judgment and knowledge, by his playful kindliness towards the few intimates he has, and the sober wistfulness with which he looks out, from his Pisgahheight of universal culture, over regions of imaginative delight into which it was not given to him nor his contemporaries to enter fully. To take others differing most widely both as men and poets : Cowper, whether affectionately “chatting and chirping” to his cousin Lady Hesketh, or confiding his spiritual terrors to the Rev. John Newton, that unwise monitor who would not let them sleep,—Cowper is a letter-writer the most unaffected and sincere, but has nevertheless the degree of reticence natural to his breeding, as well as a touch of staidness and formality proper to his age. Byron offers an extreme contrast; unrestrained he is, but far indeed from being unaffected; the greatest attitudinist in literature as in life, and the most brilliant of all letterwriters after his fashion, with his wit, his wilfulness, his flash, his extraordinary unscrupulousness and resource, his vulgar pride of caste, his everlasting restlessness and egotism, his occasional true irradiations of the divine fire. Shelley, again—but he, as has been justly said, must have his singing robes about him to be quite truly Shelley, and in his correspondence is little more than any other amiable and enthusiastic gentleman and scholar on his travels. To the case of Keats, at any rate, none of these other distinguished letter-writers affords any close parallel. That admirable genius was, from the social point of view, an unformed lad in the flush and rawness of youth. His passion for beauty, his instinctive insight into the vital sources of imaginative delight in nature, in romance, and in antiquity, went along with perceptions painfully acute in matters of daily life, and nerves high-strung in the extreme. He was, moreover, almost incapable of artifice or disguise. Writing to his brothers and sister or to friends as dear, he is secret with them on one thing only, and that is his unlucky love-passion after he became a prey to it: for the rest he is open as the day, and keeps back nothing of what crosses his mind, nothing that vexes or jars on him or tries his patience, His character, as thus laid bare, contains elements of rare nobility and attraction-modesty, humour, sweetness, courage, impulsive disinterestedness, strong and tender family affection, the gift of righteous indignation, the gift of sober and strict self-knowledge. But it is only a character in the making. A strain of hereditary disease, lurking in his constitution from the first, was developed by over-exertion and aggravated by mischance, so that he never lived to be himself; and from about his twenty-fourth birthday his utterances are those of one struggling in vain against a hopeless distemper both of body and mind.
If a selection could be made from those parts only of Keats's correspondence which show him at his best, we should have an anthology full of intuitions of beauty, even of wisdom, and breathing the very spirit of generous youth; one unrivalled for zest, whim, fancy, and amiability, and written in an English which by its peculiar alert and varied movement sometimes recalls, perhaps more closely than that of any other writer (for the young Cockney has Shakspeare in his blood), the prose passages of Hamlet and Much Ado about Nothing. Had the correspondence never been printed before, were it there to be dealt with for the first time, this method of selection would no doubt be the tempting one to apply to it. But such a treatment is now hardly possible, and in any case would hardly be quite fair ; since the object, or at all events the effect, of publishing a man's correspondence is not merely to give literary pleasure—it is to make the man himself known; and the revelation, though it need not be wholly without reserve, is bound to be just and proportionate as far as it goes. Even as an artist, in the work which he himself published to the world, Keats was not one of those of whom it
could be said, “his worst he kept, his best he gave.” Rather he gave promiscuously, in the just confidence that among the failures and half-successes of his inexperienced youth would be found enough of the best to establish his place among the poets after his death. Considering all things, the nature of the man, the difficulty of separating the exquisite from the common, the healthful from the diseased, in his mind and work, considering also the use that has already been made of the materials, I have decided in this edition to give the correspondence almost unpruned ; omitting a few passages of mere crudity, hardly more than two pages in all, but not attempting to suppress those which betray the weak places in the writer's nature, his flaws of taste and training, his movements of waywardness, irritability, and morbid suspicion. Only the biographer without tact, the critic without balance, will insist on these. A truer as well as more charitable judgment will recognise that what was best in Keats was also what was most real, and will be fortified by remembering that to those who knew him his faults were almost unapparent, and that no man was ever held by his friends in more devoted or more unanimous affection while he lived and afterwards.
There is one thing, however, which I have not chosen to do, and that is to include in this collection the poet's love-letters to Fanny Brawne. As it is, the intimate nature of the correspondence must sometimes give the reader a sense of eavesdropping, of being admitted into petty private matters with which he has no concern.
Ju this is to some extent inevitable, it is by no meu bear evitable that the public should be farther ask. over the shoulder of the sick and presenti.
S. C. while he declares the impatience a passion to the object, careless ani' seems to have been, who inspirer have been printed.
As a matterlow in the British Museum. myself in the place of the reader
them ; while as a matter of literature they are in a different key from the rest, —not lacking passages of beauty, but constrained and painful in the main, and quite without the genial ease and play of mind which make the letters to his family and friends so attractive. Therefore in this, which I hope may become the standard edition of his correspondence, they shall find no place.
As to the persons, other than those already mentioned, to whom the letters here given are addressed :—Shelley of course needs no words; nor should any be needed for the painter Haydon (1786-1846), or the poet and critic Leigh Hunt (1784-1859). Theirs were the chief inspiring influences which determined the young medical student, about his twentieth year, at the time when this correspondence opens, to give up his intended profession for poetry. Both were men of remarkable gifts and strong intellectual enthusiasm, hampered in either case by foibles of character which their young friend and follower, who has left so far inore illustrious a name, was only too quick to detect. Charles Cowden Clarke (1787-1877), the son of Keats's schoolmaster at Enfield, had exercised a still earlier influence on the lad's opening mind, and was himself afterwards long and justly distinguished as a Shakspearean student and lecturer and essayist on English literature. Charles Wentworth Dilke (17891864), having begun life in the Civil Service, early abandoned that calling for letters, and lived to be one of the most influential of English critics and journalists ; he is chiefly known from his connection with the Athenbum, and through the memoir published by his grandany càCharles Brown, afterwards styling himself Charles or at all Brown (1786 - 1842), who became known respondence 1snugh Dilke in the summer of 1817, is to make the man intimate companion during the two though it need not be June 1820, had begun life as a to be just and proporburg, and failing, came home, and as an artist, in the ware, chiefly as a contributor to the to the world, Keats wted by Leigh Hunt. He lived