Over a Copy of Keats

I HAVE a Keats, — a thin book, whose flexible, dead leaf covers hold a slender stock of creamy, irregular pages sewn between; an alluring book, wherein the margins are of incredible width; a confidential book, whose leaves open to the heart, and stay open, you breakers - in after literature bound to the letter line, and held in hopeless durance within obdurate, Bastile walls of backs !

Furthermore, there are blank pages before and blank pages behind to the soul’s content. I have sometimes endeavored to analyze the sense of pleasure afforded by the blank pages, prefacing and epilogizing the jewels between, but without success. Yet who so unappreciative as to deny that they do give pleasure, — yea, almost as much as the jewels, in some cases! Not in this instance, however, to return to the Keats which has been the companion of so many indolent strolls and inconsequential idlings in autumnal ways.

Sometimes it has but served to illustrate the half of an Emersonian quatrain, which runs in this wise : —

“ In my coat I bore a book :
But seldom therein could I look,
For I had so much to think —
Heaven and earth to eat and drink.”

True, the “ coat ” was apt to be an all-encompassing wrap, like to the falling leaves in hue, and the book scarcely remained unopened from superabundance of thought on my part; but in the main the quotation is applicable. There was the book, and therein I did not look. But there were days when I did, — days as dear, and spent none the less delightfully because dreamed away in company with the idlest brother that ever cast care to the four winds on the 21st of every June.

If one is artistic, and takes September walks with the reprehensible brother mentioned above, it gives a certain degree of satisfaction to know that he has hazel eyes to match the late sunlight, and brown hair to match the late leaves ; to observe that the smoke from his cigar seems an estray from the heliotrope wreaths of mist that float slowly above the circling hills ; to feel that his tennis coat, with its bars of brown and tan, may be included in the same glance with the daffodil - lettered brown covers of the Keats. There ! we are come to the Keats once more, and I am thinking of one especial day, a late September day. We had wandered up the slope into the cedars, and that day the slope slipped from sight as we descended the cedar hollow sleeping in the heart of the hill. Certain volumes were written to be read at certain seasons, under certain conditions. The poems of Keats were written to be read in the autumn, under cedars old as thought, — to be read where the yellow sunlight creeps and crouches in antique shifting shapes at the feet, where one remembers what one never could have known, and the memory obliterates the present tenses of life. Only then can one read with understanding. Was it reading, that day, or divination?

“ Here,” said the lounger at my side, his brown fingers turning a page to the Lamia, “ we will rest under these trees, and you shall read this. I love to hear you read poetry.”

One can be flattered into anything. Also, one can imagine anything — under the cedars.

“ Ah, happy Lycius ! — for she was a maid
More beautiful than ever twisted braid,
Or sigh’d, or blush’d, or on spring-flowered lea
Spread a green kirtle to the minstrelsy :
A virgin purest lipp’d, yet in the lore
Of love deep learned to the red heart’s core:
As though in Cupid’s college she had spent
Sweet days a lovely graduate, still unshent,
And kept his rosy terms in idle languishment.”

Here, looking up from the book, I perceived that the audience of one was not thinking of Lamia.

“ Let a fellow be,” said the audience, pulling his cap over his eyes, and blush-

ing, though I had but looked. “ There ! turn to the evocation of the banquet room.”

Do you who read remember the elfin magic of this passage ? We are so used to attributing effects of this nature to Poe and Coleridge that we sometimes think them attained by no other poets. Lamia, after imploring Lycius to desist from his design of publicly proclaiming their union, makes ready the hall for the guests whose invitation prefaced her doom: —

“ She set herself, high-thoughted, how to dress
The misery in fit magnificence.
She did so, but ’t is doubtful how and whence
Came, and who were her subtle servitors.
About the halls, and to and from the doors,
There was a noise of wings, till in short space
The glowing banquet-room shone with wide-
arched grace.
A haunting music, sole perhaps and lone
Supportress of the faery-roof, made moan
Throughout, as fearful the whole charm might fade.”

“ What a brute old Apollonius was, and is ! ” murmured the listener presently. . . . Our aimless hands met in turning the leaves. “ The Odes ? ... “ The Sonnets ? ” “No, not yet. . . . Read this.” We were suddenly sadder beneath the cedars, lingering long over the Isabella, content to softly echo the poet’s subtilely mournful invocation : —

“ O Melancholy, linger here awhile !
O Music, Music, breathe despondingly !
O Echo, Echo, from some sombre isle,
Unknown, Lethean, sigh to us — O sigh ! ”

“ One could dream over that a year. . . . What comes next ? Ah, Madeline asleep in lap of legends old. How Leigh Hunt raved about her ! I did n’t fall in love with her until I had utterly forgotten Leigh Hunt. And what next ? The Odes.”

We mused for the hundredth time over these poems, whose beauty not even popularity can mar, whose unspeakable charm not even that fatality can destroy, whose perfection no time can touch, whose exquisite sadness no joy can gainsay.

“ Who shall say there is no genius, when a boy once lived who could write these ! ” cried my brother. “ I have always thought how fortunate it was that Keats died young. Since the rhymes rung about his ears in youth, he had no need of longer life. How much better we love him than we love the poets who lived to become old ! It is for what he leaves unsaid. ‘ It is not in mere death that men die most.’ There are deaths and deaths. . . . How still it is ! ”

The pages fluttered once more. The violet mists, impalpable and encroaching, had come upon us as we loitered, softly blotting out the dim sunlight, lying like a shadow upon the leaf as we read aloud from the sonnet whose atmosphere of absolute quietude closed us in : —

“And calmest thoughts come round us ; as, of leaves
Budding, — fruit ripening in stillness, — Autumn suns
Smiling at eve upon the quiet sheaves, —
Sweet Sappho’s cheek, — a smiling infant’s breath, —
The gradual sand that through an hour-glass runs, —
A woodland rivulet, — a Poet’s death.”

The last faint yellow rays from the mist-obscured sun distantly irradiated the beginnings of innumerable cedar colonnades up which a vague and unutterably saddening fragrance, as of burial flowers, floated finely to our senses.

We thought of the young poet face saved from the dead by the artist hand. We remembered the exquisite gentleness of the eternally closed lips ; the womanish length of the dark lashes etched forever against the cheeks ; the delicate, vexed brows drawn together for the last time over the intricate problem of life. . . . We bent above the shadowy page in silence.