Recollections of Keats
LN the village of Enfield, in Middlesex, ten miles on the north road from London, was my father, John Clarke’s school. The house had been built, by a West India merchant, in the latter end of the seventeenth or beginning of the eighteenth century. It was of the better character of the domestic architecture of that period, —the whole front being of the purest red brick, wrought, by means of moulds, into rich designs of flowers and pomegranates, with heads of cherubim over two niches in the centre of the building. The elegance of the design and the perfect finish of the structure were such as to secure its protection, when a branch railway was brought from the Ware and Cambridge line to Enfield. The old school-house was converted into the station-house, and the railway company had the good taste to leave intact one of the few remaining specimens of the graceful English domestic architecture of long-gone days. Any of my readers who may happen to have a file of the London “ Illustrated News,” may find in No. 360, March 3, 1849, a not prodigiously enchanting wood-cut of the edifice.
Here it was that John Keats all but commenced and did complete his schooleducation. He was born on the 29th of October, 1 795 ; and I think he was one of the little fellows who had not wholly emerged from the child’s costume upon being placed under my fathers care. It will be readily conceived difficult to recall from the “ dark backward and abysm” of nearly sixty years the general acts of perhaps the youngest individual in a corporation of between seventy and eighty youngsters; and very little more of Keats's child-life can I remember than that he had a brisk, winning face, and was a favorite with all, particularly with my mother.
His maternal grandfather, Jennings, was proprietor of a large livery-stable, called “ The Swan and Hoop,” on the pavement in Moorfields, opposite the entrance into Finsbury Circus. He had two sons at my father’s school. The elder was an officer in Duncan’s ship in the fight off Camperdown. After the battle, the Dutch Admiral, De Winter, pointing to young Jennings, told Duncan that he had fired several shots at that young man, and always missed his mark; — no credit to his steadiness of aim ; for Jennings, like his own admiral, was considerably above the ordinary dimensions of stature.
Keats’s father was the principal servant at the Swan and Hoop Stables,— a man of so remarkably fine a commonsense and native respectability, that I perfectly remember the warm terms in which his demeanor used to be canvassed by my parents after he had been to visit his boys. He was short of stature and well-knit in person, (John resembling him both in make and feature,) with brown hair and dark hazel eyes. He was killed by a fall from his horse, in returning from a visit to the school. John’s two brothers, George, older, and Thomas, younger than himself, were like the mother,— who was tall, of good figure, with large, oval face, sombre features, and grave in behavior. The last of the family was a sister, — Fanny, I think, much younger than all, — of whom I remember my mother once speaking with much fondness, for her pretty, simple manners, while she was walking in the garden with her brothers. She married Mr. Llanos, a Spanish refugee, the author of “ Don Estéban,” and “ Sandoval, the Free-Mason.” He was a man of liberal principles, attractive manners, and more than ordinary accomplishments.— This is the amount of my knowledge and recollection of the family.
In the early part of his school-life, John gave no extraordinary indications of intellectual character; but it was remembered of him afterwards, that there was ever present a determined and steady spirit in all his undertakings; and, although of a strong and. impulsive will, I never knew it misdirected in his required pursuit of study, He was a most orderly scholar. The future ramifications of that noble genius were then closely shut in the seed, and greedily drinking in the moisture which made it afterwards burst forth so kindly into luxuriance and beauty.
My father was in the habit, at each half-year’s vacation, of bestowing prizes upon those pupils who had performed the greatest quantity of voluntary extra work; and such was Keats's indefatigable energy for the last two or three successive half-years of his remaining at school, that, upon each occasion, he took the first prize by a considerable distance. He was at Work before the first school-hour began, and that was at seven o’clock ; almost all the intervening times of recreation were so devoted; and during the afternoon-holidays, when all were at play, I have seen him in the school,— almost the only one, — at his Latin or French translation; and so unconscious and regardless was he of the consequences of this close and persevering application, that he never would have taken the necessary exercise, had he not been sometimes driven out by one of us for the purpose.
I have said that he was a favorite 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. One of the transports of that marvellous actor, Edmund Kean — whom, by the way, he idolized-—was its nearest resemblance ; and the two were not very dissimilar in face and figure. I remember, upon one occasion, when an usher, on account of some impertinent behavior, had boxed his brother Tom’s ears, John rushed up, put himself in the received posture of offence, and, I believe, struck the usher, — who could have put him into his pocket. His passions at times were almost ungovernable ; his brother George, being considerably the taller and stronger, used frequently to hold him down by main force, when he was in “one of his moods ” and was endeavoring to beat him. It was all, however, a wisp-of-straw conflagration ; for he had an intensely tender affection for his brothers, and proved it upon the most trying occasions, He was not merely the “ favorite of all,” like a pet prize-fighter, for his terrier courage ; but his high-mindedness, his utter unconsciousness of a mean motive, his placability, his generosity, wrought so general a feeling in his behalf, that I never heard a word of disapproval from any one who had known him, superior or equal.
The latter part of the time — perhaps eighteen months — that he remained at school, he occupied the hours during meals in reading. Thus his whole time was engrossed. He had a tolerably retentive memory, and the quantity that he read was surprising. He must in those last months have exhausted the school-library, which consisted principally of abridgments of all the voyages and travels of any note; Mavor’s Collection; also his Universal History; Robertson’s Histories of Scotland, America, and Charles the Fifth; all Miss Edgeworth’s productions; together with many other works, equally well calculated for youth, not necessary to be enumerated. The books, however, that were his constantly recurrent sources of attraction were Tooke’s “ Pantheon,” Lempriére’s “ Classical Dictionary,” which he appeared to learn, and Spence’s “ Polymetis.” This was the store whence he acquired his perfect intimacy with the Greek mythology ; here was he “ suckled in that creed outworn”; for his amount of classical attainment extended no farther than the “ Æneid ”; with which epic, indeed, he was so fascinated, that before leaving school he had voluntarily translated in writing a considerable portion. And yet I remember that at that early age,— mayhap under fourteen, — notwithstanding and through all its incidental attractiveness, he hazarded the opinion to me that there was feebleness in the structure of the work. He must have gone through all the better publications in the schoollibrary, lor he asked me to lend him some of my own books ; and I think I now see him at supper, (we had all our meals in the school-room,) sitting back on the form, and holding the folio volume of Burnet’s History of his own Time ” between himself and the table, eating his meal from beyond it. This work, and Leigh Hunt’s “ Examiner” newspaper, — which my father took in, and I used to lend to Keats, — I make no doubt laid the foundation of his love of civil and religious liberty. He once told me, smiling, that one of his guardians, being informed what books I had lent him to read, declared, that, if he had fifty children, he would not send one of them to my father’s school.
When he left us, — I think at fourteen years of age, — he was apprenticed to Mr. Thomas Hammond, a medical man, residing in Church Street, Edmonton, and exactly two miles from Enfield. This arrangement appeared to give him satisfaction ; and I fear that it was the most placid period of his painful life; for now, with the exception of the duty he had to perform in the surgery, and which was by no means an onerous one, his whole leisure hours were employed in indulging his passion for reading and translating. It was during his apprenticeship that he finished the latter portion of the Æneid.”
The distance between our residences being so short, I encouraged his inclination to come over, when he could be spared ; and in consequence, I saw him about five or six times a month, commonly on Wednesdays and Saturdays, those afternoons being my own most leisure times. He rarely came empty-handed ; either he had a book to read, or brought one with him to be exchanged. W hen the weather permitted, we always sat in an arbor at the end of a spacious garden, and, in Boswellian phrase, “ we had good talk.”
I cannot at this time remember what was the spark that fired the train of his poetical tendencies,— I do not remember what was the first signalized poetry he read; but he must have given me unmistakable tokens of his bent of taste; otherwise, at that early stage of his career, I never could have read to him the “ Epithalainion” of Spenser; and this I perfectly remember having done, and in that (to me) hallowed old arbor, the scene of many bland and graceful associations,— all the substances having passed away. He was at that time, I should suppose, fifteen or sixteen years old; and at that period of life he certainly appreciated the general beauty of the composition, and felt the more passionate passages; for his features and exclamations were ecstatic. How often have I in after-times heard him quote these lines : —
Hearing the holy priest that to her speaks,
And blesses her with his two happy hands,
How the red roses flush up in her cheeks!
And the pure snow, with goodly vermil stain,
Like crimson dyed in grain,
That even the angels, which continually
About the sacred altar do remain,
Forget their service, and about her fly,
Oft peeping in her face, that seems more fair,
The more they on it stare;
But her sad eyes, still fastened on the ground,
Are governèd with goodly modesty,
That suffers not one look to glance awry, Which may let in a little thought unsound.”
That night he took away with him the first volume of the “ Faery Queen,” and went through it, as I told his biographer, Mr. Monckton Milnes, “ as a young horse would through a spring meadow,— ramping ! ” Like a true poet, too, — a poet “born, not manufactured,” — a poet in grain,— he especially singled out the epithets, for that felicity and power in which Spenser is so eminent. He hoisted himself up, and looked burly and dominant, as he said, — “What an image that is,— ' Sea-shouldering whales ’! ”
It was a treat to see as well as hear him read a pathetic passage. Once, when reading the "Cymbcline” aloud, I saw his eyes fill with tears, and for some moments he was unable to proceed, when he came to the departure of Posthumus, and Imogen’s saying she would have watched him
Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle;
Nay, followed him till he had melted from
The smallness of a gnat to air; and then
Have turned mine eye and wept."
I cannot quite reconcile the time of our separating at this stage of his career,— which of us first went to London ; but it was upon an occasion when I was walking thither, and, I think, to see Leigh Hunt, who had just: fulfilled his penalty of confinement in Horsemonger - Lane Prison for the trivial libel upon the Prince Regent, that Keats, who was coming over to Enfield, met me, and, turning, accompanied me back part of the way to Edmonton. At the last field-gate, when taking leave, he gave me the sonnet entitled, “ Written on the Day that Mr. Leigh Hunt left Prison.” Unless I am utterly mistaken, this was the first proof I had received of his having committed himself in verse ; and how clearly can I recall the conscious look with which he hesitatingly offered it! There are some momentary glances of beloved friends that fade only with life. I am not in a position to contradict the statement of his biographer, that “ the lines in imitation of Spenser,
And her first footsteps touched a verdant hill,’ etc.,
are the earliest known verses of his composition ”; from the subject being the inspiration of his first love — and such a love ! — in poetry, it is most probable ; but certainly his first published poem was the sonnet commencing,
and that will be found in the “ Examiner,” some time, as I conjecture, in 1816, — for I have not the paper to refer to, and, indeed, at this distance, both of time and removal from the means of verification, I would not be dogmatical.
When we both had come to London,— he to enter as a student of St. Thomas's Hospital, — he was not long in discovering that my abode was with my brotherin-law, in Little Warner Street, Clerkenwell; and just at that time I was installed housekeeper, and was solitary, He, therefore, would come and revive his loved gossip, till, as the author of the “ Urn Burial ” says, “we were acting our antipodes,— the huntsmen were up in America, and they already were past their first sleep in Persia.” At this time he lived in his first lodging upon coming to London, near to St. Thomas’s I find his address in a letter which must have preceded my appointing him to come and lighten my darkness in Clerkenweli. At the close of the letter, he says, — “Although the Borough is a beastly place in dirt, turnings, and windings, yet No. 8, Dean Street, is not difficult to find ; and if you would run the gauntlet over London Bridge, take the first turning to the left, and then the first to the right, and, moreover, knock at my door, which is nearly opposite a meeting, you would do me a charity, which, as St. Paul saith, is the father of all the virtues. At all events, let me hear from you soon : I say, at all events, not excepting the gout in your fingers.” I have little doubt that this letter (which has no other date than the day of the week, and no post-mark) preceded our first symposium ; and a memorable night it was in my life’s career.
A copy, and a beautiful one, of the folio edition of Chapman’s Homer had been lent me. It was the property of Mr. Alsager, the gentleman who for years had contributed no small share of celebrity to the great reputation of the “Times” newspaper, by the masterly manner in which he conducted the money-market department of that journal. At the time when I was first introduced to Mr. Alsager, he was living opposite Horsemonger-Lane Prison; and upon Mr. Leigh Hunt’s being sentenced for the libel, his first day’s dinner was sent over by Mr. Alsager. He was a man of the most studiously correct demeanor, with a highly cultivated taste and judgment in the fine arts and music. He succeeded Hazlitt, (which was no insignificant honor,) and for some time contributed the critiques upon the theatres, but ended by being the reporter of the state of the money-market. He had long been accustomed to have the first trial at his own house of the best-reputed new foreign instrumental music, which he used to import from Germany.
Well, then, we were put in possession of the Homer of Chapman, and to work we went, turning to some of the " famousest” passages, as we had scrappily known them in Pope’s version. There was, for instance, that perfect scene of the conversation on Troy wall of the old Senators with Helen, who is pointing out to them the several Greek captains, with that wonderfully vivid portrait of an orator, in Ulysses, in the Third Book, beginning at the 23 7th line,—
the helmet and shield of Diomed, in the opening of the Fifth Book; the prodigious description of Neptune’s passage in his chariot to the Achive ships, in the opening of the Thirteenth Book, —
trembled beneath the weight
Of his immortal moving feet.”
The last was the whole of the shipwreck of Ulysses in the Fifth Book of the “ Odyssey.” I think his expression of delight, during the reading of those dozen lines, was never surpassed: —
His strong hands hanging down, and all with froth
His checks and nostrils flowing, voice and breath
Spent to all use, and down he sunk to death. The sea had soaked his heart through; all his veins
His toils had racked t’ a laboring woman’s pains.
Dead weary was he.”
On an after-occasion I showed him the couplet of Pope’s upon the same passage : —
And lost in lassitude lay all the man.”
Chapman supplied us with many an after-feast; but it was in the teeming wonderment of this, his first, introduction, that, when I came down to breakfast the next morning, I found upon my table a letter with no other inclosure than his famous sonnet, “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer.” We had parted, as I have already said, at day-spring; yet he contrived that I should receive the poem, from a distance of nearly two miles, before 10, A.M. In the published copy of this sonnet he made an alteration in the seventh line: —
The original, which he sent me, had the phrase,
“ Yet could I never tell what men could mean";
which he said was bald, and too simply wondering. No one could more earnestly chastise his thoughts than Keats. His favorite among Chapman’s Hymns of Homer was the one to Pan, and which he himself rivalled in the “ Endymion.”
In one of our conversations about this period, I alluded to his position at St. Thomas’s Hospital, — coasting and reconnoitring, as it were, that I might discover how lie got on, and, with the total absorption that had evidently taken place of every other mood of his mind than that of imaginative composition, what was his bias for the future, and what his feeling with regard to the profession that had been chosen for him,— a circumstance I did not know at that time. He made no secret, however, that he could not sympathize with the science of anatomy, as a main pursuit in life; for one of the expressions that he used, in describing his unfitness for its mastery, was perfectly characteristic. I He said, in illustration of his argument, — “The other day, for instance, during the lecture, there came a sunbeam into the room, and with it a whole troop of creatures floating in the ray ; and I was off with them to Oberon and Fairy-land.” And yet, with all this self-styled unfitness for the pursuit, I was afterwards informed, that at his subsequent examination he displayed an amount of acquirement which surprised his fellow-students, who had scarcely any other association with him than that of a cheerful, crochety rhymester.
It was about this period, that, going to call upon Mr. Leigh Hunt, who then occupied a pretty little cottage in the “ Vale of Health,” on Hampstead Heath, I took with me two or three of the poems I had received from Keats. I did expect that Hunt would speak encouragingly, and indeed approvingly, of the compositions,— written, too, by a youth under age; but my partial spirit was not prepared for the unhesitating and prompt admiration which broke forth before he had read twenty lines of the first poem. Mr. Horace Smith happened to be there, on the occasion, and was not less demonstrative in his praise of their merits. The piece which he read out, I remember, was the sonnet,—•
“ How many bards gild the lapses of time! ” marking with particular emphasis and approbation the last six lines :—
The songs of birds, the whispering of the leaves,
The voice of waters, the great bell that heaves
With solemn sound, and thousand others more,
That distance of recognizance bereaves,—
Make pleasing music, and not wild uproar.”
Smith repeated, with applause, the line in Italics, saying, “What a well-condensed expression ! ” After making numerous and eager inquiries about him, personally, and with reference to any peculiarities of mind and manner, the visit ended in my being requested to bring him over to the Vale of Health. That was a redletter day in the young poet’s life,— and one which will never fade with me, as long as memory lasts. The character and expression of Keats’s features would unfailingly arrest even the casual passenger in the street; and now they were wrought to a tone of animation that I could not but watch with intense interest, knowing what was in store for him from the bland encouragement, and Spartan deference in attention, with fascinating conversational eloquence, that he was to receive and encounter. When we reached the Heath, I have present the rising and accelerated step, with the gradual subsidence of all talk, as we drew towards the cottage. The interview, which stretched into three “morning calls,” was the prelude to many after-scenes and saunterings about Caen Wood and its neighborhood ; for Keats was suddenly made a familiar of the household, and was always welcomed.
It was in the library at Hunt’s cottage, where an extemporary bed had been made up for him on the sofa, that he composed the framework and many lines of the poem on “Sleep and Poetry,”— the last sixty or seventy being an inventory of the art-garniture of the room. The sonnet,
he gave me the day after one of our visits,
and very shortly after his installation at the cottage.
“ Give me a golden pen, and let me lean,”
was another, upon being compelled to leave “ at an early hour.” But the occasion that recurs to me with the liveliest interest was the evening when, some observations having been made upon the character, habits, and pleasant associations of that reverenced denizen of the hearth, the cheerful little fireside grasshopper, Hunt proposed to Keats the challenge of writing, then, there, and to time, a sonnet “ On the Grasshopper and the Cricket.” No one was present but myself, and they accordingly set to. I, absent with a book at the end of the sofa, could not avoid furtive glances, every now and then, at the emulants. I cannot say how long the trial lasted; I was not proposed umpire, and had no stop-watch for the occasion: the time, however, was short, for such a performance ; and Keats won, as to time. But the event of the after-scrutiny was one of many such occurrences which have riveted the memory of Leigh Hunt in my affectionate regard and admiration, for unaffected generosity and perfectly unpretentious encouragement: his sincere look of pleasure at the first line,—
“ The poetry of earth is never dead ”;
“ Such a prosperous opening! ” he said; and when he came to the tenth and eleventh lines, —
“ On a lone winter evening, when the frost Has wrought a silence ” ;
“Ah! that’s perfect! bravo, Keats!” — and then he went on in a dilation upon the dumbness of all Nature during the season’s suspension and torpidity. With all the kind and gratifying things that were said to him, Keats protested to me, as we were afterwards walking home, that he preferred Hunt’s treatment of the subject to his own.
He had left the neighborhood of the Borough, and was now living with his brothers in apartments on the second floor of a house in the Poultry, over the passage leading to the Queen’s Head Tavern, and opposite one of the City Companies’ Halls,—the Ironmongers’, if I mistake not. I have the associating reminiscence of many happy hours spent in this lodging. Here was determined upon, in great part written, and sent forth to the world, the first little, but vigorous, offspring of his brain : —
POEMS BY JOHN KEATS.
"What more feticity can fall to creature Than to enjoy delight with liberty? ” Fate of the Butterfly. - SPENSER.
LONDON: PRINTED FOR C. AND J. OLLIER, 3, WELBECK STREET, CAVENDISH SQUARE. 1817.
Here, on the evening that the last proofsheet was brought from the printer, and, as his biographer has recorded, upon being informed, if he purposed having a Dedication to the book, that it must be sent forthwith, he went to a side-table, and, in the midst of mixed conversation, (for there were several friends in the room,) he brought to Charles Ollier, the publisher, the Dedication-Sonnet to Leigh Hunt. If the original manuscript of that poem — a legitimate sonnet, with every restriction of rhyme and metre —could now be produced, and the time recorded in which it was written, it would be pronounced an extraordinary performance; added to which, the non-alteration of a single word in the poem (a circumstance noted at the time) claims for it, I should suppose, a merit without a parallel.
“ The poem which commences the volume,” says Mr. Monckton Milnes, “was suggested to Keats by a delightful summer’s day, as he stood beside the gate that leads from the battery on Hampstead Heath into a field by Caen Wood”; and the lovely passage beginning,
“ Linger awhile upon some bending planks,” and which contains the description of the “swarms of minnows that show their little heads,” Keats told me was the recollection of our having frequently loitered over the rail of a foot-bridge that spanned a little brook in the last field upon entering Edmonton. He himself thought the picture was correct, and liked it; and I do not know who could improve it.
Another example of his promptly suggestive imagination, and uncommon facility in giving it utterance, occurred one day upon his returning home and finding me asleep upon the sofa, with my volume of Chaucer open at the “ Flower and the Leaf.” After expressing his admiration of the poem, which he had been reading, he gave me the fine testimony of that opinion, in pointing to the sonnet he had written at the close of it, which was an extempore effusion, and it has not the alteration of a single word. It lies before me now, signed, “ J. K., Feb., 181 7.” If my memory does not betray me, this charming out-door fancy-scene was Keats’s first introduction to Chaucer. Certain I am that the “ Troilus and Cresseide ” was an after-acquaintance; and clearly do I remember his approbation of the favorite passages that I had marked. I desired him to retrace the poem, and with his pen confirm and denote those which were congenial with his own feeling and judgment. These two circumstances, connected with the literary career of this eberislied object of his friend's esteem and love, have stamped a priceless value upon that friend’s miniature 18mo copy of Chaucer.
The little first volume of Keats’s Muse was launched amid the cheers and fond anticipations of all his circle. Every one of us expected that it would create a sensation in the literary world ; and we calculated upon, at least, a succession of reprints. Alas ! it might have emerged in Timbuctoo with stronger chance of fame and favor. It never passed to a second edition; the first was but a small one, and that was never sold off. The whole community, as if by compact, determined to know nothing about it. The word had been passed that its author was a Radical; and in those blessed days of “ Bible-Crown-andConstitution ” supremacy, he might with better chance of success have been a robber, — there were many prosperous public ones,—if he had also been an Anti-Jacobin. Keats had made no demonstration of political opinion ; but he had dedicated his book to Leigh Hunt, a Radical news-writer, and a dubbed partisan of the French ruler, because he did not call him the “ Corsican monster, and other disgusting names. Verily, “ the former times were not better than these.” Men can now write the word “Liberty” without being chalked on the back and hounded out.
Poor Keats! he little anticipated, and as little deserved, the cowardly and scoundrel treatment that was in store for him upon the publication of his second composition, the “ Endymion.” It was in the interval of the two productions that he had moved from the Poultry, and had taken a lodging in Well Walk, Hampstead,— in the first or second house, on the right hand, going up to the Heath. I have an impression that he had been some weeks absent at the sea-side before settling in this domicile ; for the “Endymion” had been begun, and he had made considerable advances in his plan. He came to me one Sunday, and I walked with him, spending the whole day in Well Walk. His constant and enviable friend Severn, I remember, was present on the occasion, by the circumstance of our exchanging looks upon Keats’s reading to us portions of his new work that had pleased himself. One of these, I think, was the “Hymn to Pan”; and another, I am sure, was the “ Bower of Adonis,” because his own expression of face will never pass from me (if I were a Reynolds or a Gainsborough, I could now stamp it forever) as he read the description of the latter, with the descent and ascent of the car of Venus. The “ Hymn to Pan ” occurs early in the First Book:—
From jagged trunks,” etc.
And the “ Bower of Adonis,” in the Second Book, commences,—
Keats was indebted for his introduction to Mr. Severn to his school-fellow Edward Holmes, who also had been one of the child-scholars at Enfield; for he came to us in the frock-dress. They were sworn companions at school, and remained friends through life. Mr. Holmes ought to have been an educated musician from his first childhood ; for the passion was in him. I used to amuse myself with the piano-forte after supper, when all had gone to bed. Upon some sudden occasion, leaving the parlor, I heard a scuffle on the stairs, and discovered that my young gentleman had left his bed to hear the music. At other times, during the day, and in the intervals of school-hours, he would stand under the window, listening, He at length intrusted to me his heart’s secret, that he should like to learn music. So I taught him his notes; and he soon knew and could do as much as his tutor. Upon leaving Enfield, he was apprenticed to the elder Seeley, a bookseller in Fleet Street; but, hating his occupation, left it, I believe, before he was of age. He had not lost sight of me; and I introduced him to Mr. Vincent Novello, who had made himself a friend to me, and who not merely, with rare profusion of bounty, gave Holmes instruction, but received him into his house, and made him one of his family. With them he resided some years. I was also the fortunate means of recommending him to the chief proprietor of the “Atlas” newspaper; and to that journal, during a long period, he contributed a series of essays and critiques upon the science and practice of music, which raised the journal into a reference and an authority in the art. He wrote for the proprietors of the “ Atlas ” that elegant little book of dilettante criticism, “ A Ramble among the Musicians in Germany.” He latterly contributed to the “ Musical Times” a whole series of masterly essays and analyses upon the Masses of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. But, the work upon which his reputation will rest was a “ Life of Mozart,” which was purchased by Chapman and Hall.
I have said that Holmes used to listen on the stairs. In after-years, when Keats was reading to me his “ Eve of St. Agnes,” (and what a happy day was that! I had come up to see him from Ramsgate, where I then lived,) at the passage where Porphyro in Madeleine’s chamber is fearfully listening to the hubbub of the dancing and the music in the hall below, and the verse says,—
The kettle-drum and far-heard clarionet,
Affray his ears, though but in dying tone:
The hall-door shuts again,and all the noise is gone," —
“ That line,” said he, “ came into my head when I remembered how I used to listen, in bed, to your music at, school.” Interesting would be a record of the germs and first causes of all the greatest poets’ Conceptions! The elder Brunel's first bint for his “shield,” in constructing the tunnel under the Thames, was taken from watching the labor of a sea-insect, which, having a projecting hood, could bore into the ship’s timber, unmolested by the waves.
I fancy it was about this time that Keats gave that signal example of his courage and stamina, in the recorded instance of his pugilistic contest with a butcher-boy. He told me — and in his characteristic manner — of their “passage of arms.” The brute, he said, was tormenting a kitten, and he interfered, when a threat offered was enough for his mettle, and they set to. He thought he should be beaten; for the fellow was the taller and stronger; but, like an authentic pugilist, my young poet found that he had planted a blow which “ told ” upon his antagonist. In every succeeding round, therefore, (for they fought nearly an hour,) he never failed of returning to the weak point; and the contest ended in the hulk being led or carried home. In all my knowledge of my fellow-beings, I never knew one who so thoroughly combined the sweetness with the power of gentleness and the irresistible sway of anger as Keats. His indignation would have made the boldest grave; and those who have seen him under the influence of tyranny, injustice, and meanness of soul will never forget the expression of his features, — “ the form of his visage was changed.”
He had a strong sense of humor ; yet, so to speak, he was not, in the strict sense of the term, a humorist. His comic fancy lurked in the outermost and most unlooked-for images of association, — which, indeed, may be said to be the components of humor ; nevertheless, I think they did not extend beyond the quaint, in fulfilment and success. But his perception of humor, with the power of transmitting it by imitation, was both vivid and irresistibly amusing. He once described to me his having gone to see a bear-baiting,—the animal, the property of a Mr. Tom Oliver. The performance not having begun, Keats was near to and watched a young aspirant, who had brought a younger under his wing to witness the solemnity, and whom he oppressively patronized, instructing him in the names and qualities of all the magnates present. Now and then, in his zeal to manifest and impart his knowledge, he would forget himself, and stray beyond the prescribed bounds, into the ring,— to the lashing resentment of its comptroller, Mr. William Soames ; who, after some hints of a practical nature, to “ keep back,” began laying about him with indiscriminate and unmitigable vivacity, — the Peripatetic signifying to his pupil, — “ My eyes! Bill Soames giv’ me sich a licker ! ”—evidently grateful, and considering himself complimented, upon being included in the general dispensation. Keats’s entertainment with this minor scene of low life has often recurred to me. But his subsequent description of the baiting, with his position, of his legs and arms bent and shortened, till he looked like Bruin on his hind-legs, dabbing his fore-paws hither and thither, as the dogs snapped at him, and now and then acting the gasp of one that had been suddenly caught and hugged, his own capacious mouth adding force to the personation, was a memorable display. I am never reminded of this amusing relation, but it is associated with that forcible picture in Shakspeare, (and what subject can we not associate with him?) in the “Henry VI.”: —
“ Who having pinched a few and made them cry,
“The rest stand all aloof and bark at him.”
Keats also attended a prize-fight between two of the most skilful and enduring “light-weights,”—Randal and Turner. It was, I believe, at that remarkable wager, when, the men being so equally matched and accomplished, they had been sparring for three-quarters of an hour before a blow had been struck. In describing the rapidity of Randal’s blows while the other was falling, Keats tapped his fingers on the window-pane.
I make no apology for recording these events in his life ; they are characteristics of the natural man, — and prove, moreover, that the indulgence in such exhibitions did not for one moment blunt the gentler emotions of his heart, or vulgarize his inborn love of all that was beautiful and true. His own line was the axiom of his moral existence, his political creed: — “A thing of beauty is a joy forever ”; and I can fancy no coarser consociation able to win him from this faith. Had he been born in squalor, he would have emerged a gentleman. Keats was not an easily swayable man; in differing with those he loved, his firmness kept equal pace with the sweetness of his persuasion; but with the rough and the unlovable he kept no terms,— within the conventional precincts, I mean, of social order.
From Well Walk he moved to another quarter of the Heath, — Wentworth Place the name, if I recollect. Here he became a sharing inmate with Mr. Charles Armitage Brown, a gentleman who had been a Russia merchant, and had retired to a literary leisure upon an independence. I do not know how they became acquainted; but Keats never had a more zealous, a firmer, or more practical friend and adviser than Brown. His robust eagerness and zeal, with a headstrong determination of will, led him into an undue prejudice against the brother, George, respecting some money-transactions with John, which, however, the former redeemed to the perfect satisfaction of all the friends of the family. After the death of Keats, Armitage Brown went to reside in Florence, where he remained some few years ; then he settled at Plymouth, and there brought out a work entitled, “ Shakespeare’s Autobiographical Poems. Being his Sonnets clearly developed; with his Character, drawn chiefly from his Works.” It cannot be said that in this work the author has clearly educed his theory; but, in the face of his failure upon that main point, the book is interesting, for the heart-whole zeal and homage with which he has gone into his subject. Brown was no half-measure man; “ whatsoever his hand found to do, he did it with his might.” His last stage-scene in life was passed in New Zealand, whither he emigrated with his son, having purchased some land, — or, as his own letter stated, having been thoroughly defrauded in the transaction. Brown accompanied Keats in his tour in the Hebrides, a worthy event in the poet’s career, seeing that it led to the production of that magnificent sonnet to “ Ailsa Rock.” As a passing observation, and to show how the minutest circumstance did not escape him, he told me, that, when he first came upon the view of Loch Lomond, the sun was setting; the lake was in shade, and of a deep blue; and at the farther end was “ a slash across it, of deep orange.” The description of the traceried window in the “ Eve of St. Agnes” gives proof of the intensity of his feeling for color.
It was during his abode in Wentworth Place that the savage and vulgar attacks upon the “ Endymion ” appeared in the “ Quarterly Review,” and in “ Blackwood’s Magazine.” There was, indeed, ruffian, low-lived work,— especially in the latter publication, which had reached a pitch of blackguardism, (it used to be called “ Blackguard’s Magazine,”) with personal abuse,— ABUSE,— the only word, — that would damage the sale of any review at this day. The very reverse of its present management. There would not now be the inclination for such rascal bush-fighting ; and even then, or indeed at any period of the Magazine’s career, the stalwart and noble mind of John Wilson would never have made itself editorially responsible for such trash. As to him of the “ Quarterly,” a thimble would have been “a mansion, a court,” for his whole soul. The style of the articles directed against the Radical writers, and those especially whom the party had nicknamed the “ Cockney school ” of poetry, may he conceived by its provoking the following observation from Hazlitt to me : — “ To pay those fellows, Sir, in their own coin, the way would be, to begin with Walter Scott, and haveat his dump-foot.” “ Verily, the former times were not better than these.”
To say that these disgusting misrepresentations did not affect the consciousness and self-respect of Keats would be to underrate the sensitiveness of his nature. He felt the insult, but more the injustice of the treatment he had received ; he told me so, as we lay awake one night, when I slept in his brother’s bed. They had injured him in the most wanton manner; but if they, or my Lord Byron, ever for one moment supposed that he was crushed or even cowed in spirit by the treatment he had received, never were they more deluded. “ Snuffed out by an article,” indeed ! He had infinitely more magnanimity, in its fullest sense, than that very spoiled, self-willed, and mean-sonlcd man, — and I have authority for the last term. To say nothing of personal and private transactions, pages 204—207 in the first volume of Mr. Monekton Milnes’s: life of our poet will be full authority for my estimate of his Lordship. “Johnny Keats” had, indeed, “ a little body with a mighty heart,” and he showed it in the best way: not By fighting the ruffians, — though he could have done that, — but by the resolve that he would produce brain-work which not one of their party could approach; and he did.
In the year 1820 appeared the “Lamia,” “Isabella,” “Eve of St. Agnes,” and “ Hyperion,” etc. But, alas ! the insidious disease which carried him off had made its approach, and he was going to, or had already departed for, Italy, attended by his constant and self-sacrificing friend, Severn. Keats’s mother died of consumption; and he nursed his younger brother in the same disease, to the last, — and, by so doing, in all probability, hastened his own summons. Upon the publication of the last volume of poems, Charles Lamb wrote one of his own finely appreciative and cordial critiques in the “Morning Chronicle.” This was sent to me in the country, where I had for some time resided. I had not heard of the dangerous state of Keats’s health, — only that he and Severn were going to Italy ; it was, therefore, an unprepared shock which brought me the news that he had died in Rome.
Mr. Monckton Milne s has related the anecdote of Keats’s introduction to Wordsworth, with the latter’s appreciation of the “ Hymn to Pan,” which its author had been desired to repeat, and the Rydal Mount poet’s snow-capped comment upon it, — “ Uhm ! a pretty piece of Paganism!” Mr. Milnes, with his genial and placable nature, has made an amiable defence for the apparent coldness of Wordsworth’s appreciation,—“ That it was probably intended for some slight rebuke to his youthful compeer, whom he saw absorbed in an order of ideas that to him appeared merely sensuous, and would have desired that the bright traits of Greek mythology should be sobered down by a graver faith.” Keats, like Shakspeare, and every other true poet, put his whole soul into what he imagined, portrayed, or embodied; and hence he appeared the young Greek, “ suckled in that creed outworn.” The wonder is, that Mr. Wordsworth forgot to quote himself. From Keats’s description of his Mentor’s manner, as well as behavior, that evening, I cannot but believe it to have been one of the usual ebullitions of the egoism, not to say of the uneasiness, known to those who were accustomed to hear the great moral philosopher discourse upon his own productions and descant upon those of a contemporary. During this same visit, he was dilating upon some question in poetry, when, upon Keats’s insinuating a confirmatory suggestion to his argument, Mrs. Wordsworth put her hand upon his arm, saying,—“ Mr. Wordsworth is never interrupted.” Again, during the same interview, some one had said that the next Waverley novel was to be “ Rob Roy" when Mr. Wordsworth took down his volume of Ballads, and read to the company “ Rob Roy’s Grave,” — then, returning it to the shelf, observed, “I do not know what more Mr. Scott can have to say upon the subject.” When Leigh Hunt had his first interview with Wordsworth, the latter lectured to him — finely, indeed — upon his own writings; and repeated the entire sonnet,
“ Great men have been among us,”—
which Hunt said he did “ in a grand and earnest tone.” Some one in a company quoting the passage from “ Henry V.,”—
and each "picking out his pet plum” from that perfect piece of natural history, Wordsworth objected to the line,
because, he said, of the unpleasant repetition of the “ing” in it! Where were liis ears and judgment on that occasion? But I have more than once heard it said that Wordsworth had not a genuine love of Shakspeare, — that, when he could, he always accompanied a “pro” with his “ con, ” and, Atticus-like, would “just hint a fault and hesitate dislike.” Truly, indeed, we are all of “ a mingled yarn, good and ill together.”
I can scarcely conceive of anything more unjust than the account which that ill-ordered being, Hayden, left behind him in his “ Diary,” respecting the idolized object of his former intimacy, John Keats. At his own eager request, after reading the manuscript specimens I had left with Leigh Hunt, I had introduced their author to him; and for some time subsequently I had frequent opportunities of seeing them together, and can testify to the laudations that Hayden trowelled on to the young poet. Before l left London, however, it had been said that things and opinions had changed, — and, in short, that Haydon had abjured all acquaintance with, and had even ignored, such a person as the author of the sonnet to him, and those “ On the Elgin Marbles.” I say nothing of the grounds of their separation ; but, knowing the two men, and knowing, I believe, to the core, the humane principle of the poet, I have such faith in his steadfastness of friendship, that I am sure he would never have left behind him an unfavorable truth, while nothing could have induced him to utter a calumny of one who had received pledges of his former regard and esteem. Hay don’s detraction was the more odious because its object could not contradict the charge, and because it supplied his old critical antagonists (if any remained) with an authority for their charge against him of Cockney ostentation and display. The most mean-spirited and trumpery twaddle in the paragraph was, that Keats was so far gone in sensual excitement as to put Cayenne pepper upon his tongue, when taking his claret! Poor fellow ! he never purchased a bottle of claret, within my knowledge of him ; and, from such observation as could not escape me, I am bound to assert that his domestic expenses never could have occasioned him a regret or a self-reproof.
When Shelley left England for Italy, Keats told me that he had received from him an invitation to become his guest,— and, in short, to make one of his household. It was upon the purest principle that Keats declined the noble proffer: for he entertained an exalted opinion of Shelley’s genius, in itself an inducement; he also knew of his deeds of bounty ; and lastly, from their frequent intercourse, he had full faith in the sincerity of his proposal ; for a more crystalline heart than Shelley’s never beat in human bosom, He was incapable of an untruth or of a deceit in any ill form. Keats told me, that, in declining the invitation, his sole motive was the consciousness, which would be ever prevalent with him, of his not being, in its utter extent, a free agent,— even within such a circle as Shelley’s,— himself, nevertheless, the most unrestricted of beings. Mr. Trelawney, a familiar of the family, has confirmed the unwavering testimony to Shelley’s bounty of nature, where he says, “ Shelley was a being absolutely without selfishness.” The poorest cottagers knew and benefited by the thoroughly practical and unselfish character of his Christianity, during his residence at Marlow, when he would visit them, and, having gone through a course of study in medicine, in order that he might assist them with his advice, would commonly administer the tonic which such systems usually require, — a good basin of broth, or pea-soup. And I believe I am infringing on no private domestic delicacy, when I repeat, that he has been known, upon a sudden and immediate emergency, to purloin (“ convey the wise it call ”) a portion of the warmest of Mrs. Shelley’s wardrobe, to protect some poor starving sister. One of the richer residents of Marlow told me that “ they all considered him a madman.” I wish he had bitten the whole squad.
The ‘wisdom' of that madness.”
Shelley’s figure was a little above the middle height, slender, and of delicate construction, which appeared the rather from a lounging or waving manner in his gait, as though his frame was compounded merely of muscle and tendon, and that the power of walking was an achievement with him, and not a natural habit. Yet I should suppose that he was not a valetudinarian, although that has been said of him, on account of his spare and vegetable diet: for I have the remembrance of his scampering and bounding over the gorse-bushes on Hampstead Heath, late one night, — now close upon us, and now shouting from the height, like a wild school-boy. He was both an active and an enduring walker, — feats which do not accompany an ailing and feeble constitution. His face was round, flat, pale, with small features; mouth beautifully shaped; hair, bright-brown and wavy; and such a pair of eyes as are rarely seen in the human or any other head, — intensely blue, with a gentle and lambent expression, yet wonderfully alert and engrossing: nothing appeared to escape his knowledge.
Whatever peculiarity there might have been in Shelley’s religious faith, I have the best authority for believing that it was confined to the early period of his life. The practical result of its course of action, I am sure, had its source from the “ Sermon on the Mount.” There is not one clause in that divine code which his conduct towards his fellow-mortals did not confirm, and substantiate him to be a follower of Christ. Yet, when the news arrived in London of the death of Shelley and Captain Williams by drowning, the “ Courier” newspaper — an evening journal of that day —capped the intelligence with the following remark : — “ He will now know whether there is a hell or not !”— I believe that there are still one or two public, fanatics who would think that surmise, but not one would dare to utter it in his journal. So much for the progress of liberality, and the power of opinion.
At page 100 of the “ Life of Keats,” Vol. I., Mr. Monckton Milnes has quoted a literary portrait of him, which he received from a lady who used to see him at Hazlitt’s lectures at the Surrey Institution. The building was on the south or righthand side, and close to Blackfriars’ Bridge. I believe that the whole of Hazlitt's lectures, on the British Poets, the Writers of the Time of Elizabeth, and the Comic Writers, were delivered in that Institution, during the years 1817 and 1818; shortly after which time the establishment appears to have been broken up. The lady’s remark upon the character and expression of Keats's features is both happy and true. She says, — “ His countenance lives in my mind as one of singular beauty and brightness ; it had an expression as if he had been looking on some glorious sight.” That’s excellent. — “ His mouth was full, and less intellectual than his other features.” True again. But when our artist pronounces that “his eyes were large and blue” and that “his hair was auburn” I am naturally reminded of the fable of the “Chameleon”: — “They’re brown, Ma’am,— brown, I assure you!” The fact is, the lady was enchanted — and I cannot wonder at it — with the whole character of that beaming face; and “blue” and “auburn” being the favorite tints of the human front divine, in the lords of the creation, the poet’s eyes consequently became " blue,” and his hair “auburn.” Colors,however,vary with the prejudice or partiality of the spectator; and, moreover, people do not agree even upon the most palpable prismatic tint. A writing-master whom we had at Enfield was an artist of more than ordinary merit; but he had one dominant defect: he could not distinguish between true blue and true green. So that, upon one occasion, when he -was exhibiting to us a landscape he had just completed, I hazarded the critical question, why he painted his trees so blue? “ Blue !” he replied, — “ what do you call green ? ” — Reader, alter in your copy of Monckton Milnes’s “ Life of Keats,” Vol. I., page 103, “eyes” light hazel, “hair” lightish-brown and wavy.
The most perfect, and withal the favorite portrait of him, was the one by Severn, published in Leigh Hunt’s “ Lord Byron and his Con temporaries,” and which I remember the artist’s sketching in a few minutes, one evening, when several of Keats’s friends were at his apartments in the Poultry. The portrait prefixed to the “Life,” also by Severn, is a most excellent one-look-and-expression likeness,— an every-day, and of “the earth, earthy ” one; — and the last, which the same artist painted, and which is now in the possession of Mr. John Hunter, of Craig Crook, Edinburgh, may be an equally felicitous rendering of one look and manner; but I do not intimately recognize it. There is another, and a curiously unconscious likeness of him, in the charming Dulwich Gallery of Pictures. It is in the portrait of Wouvemians, by Rembrandt. It is just so much of a resemblance as to remind the friends of the poet,— though not such a one as the immortal Dutchman would have made, had the poet been his sitter. It has a plaintive and melancholy expression, which, I rejoice to say, I do not associate with him.
There is one of his attitudes, during familiar conversation, which, at times, (with the whole earnest manner and sweet expression of the man) presents itself to me, as though I had seen him only last week. The attitude I speak of was that of cherishing one leg over the knee of the other, smoothing the instep with the palm of his hand. In this action I mostly associate him in an eager parley with Leigh Hunt, in his little cottage in the “Vale of Health.” This position, if I mistake not, is in the last portrait of him at Craig Crook ; if not, it is in a reminiscent one, painted after his death.
His stature could have been very little more than five feet; but he was, withal, compactly made and well-proportioned ; and before the hereditary disorder which carried him off began to show itself, he was active, athletic, and enduringly strong, — as the fight with the butcher gave full attestation.
The critical world,— by which term I mean the censorious portion of it;for many have no other idea of criticism than that of censure and objection,-—the critical world have so gloated over the feebler, or, if they will, the defective side of Keats’s genius, and his friends, his gloryingly partial friends, have so amply justified him, that I feel inclined to add no more to the category of opinions than to say, that the only fault in his poetry I could discover was a redundancy of imagery, — that exuberance, by-the-by, being a quality of the greatest promise, seeing that it is the constant accompaniment of a young and teeming genius. But his steady friend, Leigh Hunt, has rendered the amplest and truest record of his mental accomplishment in the Preface to the “Foliage,” quoted at page 150 of the first volume of the “ Life of Keats ”; and his biographer has so zealously, and, I would say, so amiably, summed up his character and intellectual qualities, that I can add no more than my assent.
Keats’s whole course of life, to the very last act of it, was one routine of unselfishness and of consideration for others’ feelings. The approaches of death having come on, he said to his untiring nurse-friend, — “ Severn, — I,—■ lift me up,—I am dying: — I shall die easy ; don't be frightened ;— be firm, and thank God it has come.”
There are constant indications through the memoirs,.and in the letters of Keats, of his profound reverence for Shakspeare. His own intensity of thought and expression visibly strengthened with the study of his idol; and he knew but little of him till he himself had become an author. A marginal note by him in a folio copy of the Plays is an example of the complete absorption his mind had undergone during the process of his matriculation; — and, through life, however long with any of us, we are all in progress of matriculation, as we study the “ myriad-minded’s ” system of philosophy. The note that Keats made was this: — “ The genius of Shakspeare was an innate universality; wherefore he laid the achievements of human intellect prostrate beneath his indolent and kingly gaze : he could, do easily men’s utmost; his plan of tasks to come was not of this world. If what he proposed to do hereafter would not in the idea answer the aim, how tremendous must have been his conception of ultimates! ”