IN all the writing of genius, which is a power that possesses its so-called possessor rather than is possessed by him, there is much that seems like accident. Many things — all the best ones, it might not be too much to say — are contributed by the pen rather than by the man. The man had never thought of them: it was no more within his intention to write them than to write another Hamlet; and suddenly there they are before him on the paper. The handwriting is his, but as to where the words came from he can tell hardly more than his most illiterate neighbor. From No-Man’s-Land, if you please to say so.
Keats was proudly conscious of this mystery. There is nothing, indeed, upon which he, or any poet, could half so reasonably felicitate himself. His divinest verses, he knew it and owned it, were traced for him “by the magic hand of chance.” A great thing, a power almost omnipotent, is this that we call by that convenient, ignorance-disguising name. It made not only Keats’s verses, but Keats himself. Otherwise how explain him ? — son of a stable-keeper, a playloving, belligerent, unstudious boy, a surgeon’s apprentice at fifteen, dead at twenty-six, and before that — and henceforth— one of the chief glories of England, a poet, “with Shakespeare.”
He himself suspected nothing of his gift, so far as appears, till he was eighteen. Then he read the Fairy Queen, fell under its enchantment, and immediately, or very soon, minding an inward call, began trying his own hand at verses. At first they were no more than verses, “ neither precocious nor particularly promising,” says Mr. Colvin; things that a man takes a certain pleasure in doing, —
Which only poets know,” —
and finds, it may be, a certain kind of profit in doing, but sees to be of no value as soon as they are done
At twenty the vein began to show the gold. He assayed the shining particles, for by this time he had been reading Shakespeare and Milton, and knew a line of poetry when he saw it,1 and, like the man in the parable, he did not hesitate. He knew what he wanted. He would sell all that he had and buy that field. “I begin,” he said, in one of the earliest of his extant letters, “I begin to fix my eye upon one horizon.” He would be a poet, because he must. He would not be a surgeon, because he must not. He had done well in his studies, we are told, and was in good repute at the hospital, whither by this time he had gone; but a voice was speaking within him, and there was never an hour but he heard it. “ The other day, during the lecture,” he said, “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.” “My last operation,” he tells another correspondent, “ was the opening of a man’s temporal artery. I did it with the utmost nicety, but reflecting on what passed through my mind at the time, my dexterity seemed a miracle, and I never took up the lancet again.”
It was a bold stroke, — no prudent adviser would have borne him out in it — to forsake everything else to be a poet. But never was a luckier one. He had but four or five years to live, and (a comfort indeed to think of!) he did not waste them in making ready to earn a living he was never to have. It was a plain case of losing one’s life to find it.
Only four or five years, but with what a zest he lived them! Misgivings no doubt he had, enough and to spare. Now and then, to use his own words, he was pretty well “down in the mouth.” “I have been
in such a state of mind,” he writes to Haydon, “as to read over my lines and hate them. I am one that ‘gathers samphire, dreadful trade’—the Cliff of Poesy towers above me.” He knew also the canker of pecuniary difficulty (“like a nettle leaf or two in your bed,” his own expression is) ; and then, when he was but beginning his work, there fell on him the stroke of a mortal disease, recognized as such from almost the first moment. But in spite of all, and through it all, what a fire he kept burning! How gloriously happy he often was! He hungered and thirsted after beauty, and he had the blessedness that rewards such a craving. For blessedness (and that is the best of it) consists perfectly with a low estate and all manner of outward misfortune. It can do without gold, and even without health. As for resting in comforts and toys, easiness and fine clothes, a great aim, if it does nothing else for a man, will at least save him from that pitch of vulgarity. A great aim is of itself a great part of the true riches. As Keats said, having found it out early, “our prime objects are a refuge as well as a passion.”
Such delight as the right men must always take in some of his letters! — especially, perhaps, some of the earlier ones, written in the period of his first fervors as a reader. He had never been a bookish boy (and no very serious harm done, it may be—for himself, at any rate, he was no believer in precocity), and now, when he fell all at once upon the great poets, it was as if he had been born again. What a relish he has! How he smacks his lips over a line of Shakespeare, — who “has left nothing to say about nothing or anything.” Here was a poet who read the works of poets. Possibly if he had lived to be old, he might have changed his practice in this regard, finding his own works sufficient, as other elderly poets have before now been charged with doing. As it is, his raptures make one think again and again of Hazlitt’s outburst, “The greatest pleasure in life is that of reading, while we are young; ” which, if it does not hit the white, is at least well within the outer circle.2
His method was unblusliingly epicurean. lake a bee in a field of flowers, he was always stopping to suck the sweetness of a line. For that very purpose be was there. The happy boy! lie had found out what books were made for. For a second time, nay, rather, for the first time, he had learned to read. A great discovery! — old as the hills and new as the morning. But new or old, a great discovery. For an intellectual youth, there is none to match it, as there is no schoolmaster to teach it. And with what a gusto he describes the process! You would think he had found Aladdin’s lamp. His fancy cannot see it from sides enough; as a child dances about a new toy, and can never be done with looking.
1 had an idea,” he says, “that a man might pass a very pleasant life in this manner. Let him on a certain day read a certain page of full poesy or distilled prose, and let him wander with it, and muse upon it, and reflect from it, and bring home to it, and prophesy upon it, and dream upon it: until it becomes stale. But when will it do so ? Never. When man has arrived at a certain ripeness in intellect any one grand and spiritual passage serves him as a starting-post towards all ‘the twm-and-thirty palaces.’ How happy is such a voyage of conception, what delicious diligent indolence! A doze upon a sofa does not hinder it, and a nap upon clover engenders ethereal finger-pointings; the prattle of a child gives it wings, and the converse of middle-age a strength to beat them; a strain of music conducts to ‘an odd angle of the Isle,’ and wdien the leaves whisper it puts a girdle round the earth.”
This he calls a “sparing touch of noble books. It is too much to be expected, of course, that readers in general, whose idea of intellectual delights is of a new novel every other day, should be contented with a method so parsimonious. If this is what you call epicureanism, they might say, pray count us among the Stoics. And for all that, as applied to Keats’s own practice, “epicurean” was the right word.
What he would have been at forty or fifty there is no telling. For the present he was not much concerned with whole poems as works of great constructive art. He was of an age to be (what Edward FitzGerald is said to have always been) “more of a connoisseur than a critic, a taster of fragrant essences, an inhaler of subtle aromas.” He loved beauty as at that stage he mostly found it (as the bee finds sweetness), in the individual flower, thinking far more of that than of the plant’s symmetrical structure, or the composition of the landscape. In this particular he resembled Lamb, who, if he called himself “an author by fits,” was no less truly a reader by fits. “I can vehemently applaud,” he said, with characteristic half-true self-depreciation, “or perversely stickle, at parts; but I cannot grasp at a whole.”
It was an admission of defect — he meant it so; but it is no slander to say that lovers of poetry are in general of substantially the same mind. Their taste is selective. They love short poems, or the beauties of long ones. Many of them have confessed as much, and many others could do no less were they called into the box. Lowell, whose standing as a critic nobody questions, though some may be bold enough, or “perverse” enough, now the man is dead, to rule him out of the class of poets, bids us remember how few long poems will bear consecutive reading. “For my part,” he says, “I know of but one, — the Odyssey.” And Samuel Johnson, who, great critic or not, had “a good deal of literature,” told Boswell “ that from his earliest years he loved to read poetry, but hardly ever read any poem to an end.”
The boy Keats, then, was not so utterly out of the way, at all events he was not without the support of good company, in taking for his own the motto of Ariel, —
And a good time he had of it; reading and idling, reading and writing, not too much in a hurry, no busier than a bee, following his bent, finding Shakespeare and the Paradise Lost every day greater wonders to him; looking upon fine phrases like a lover; more and more convinced that “fine writing, next to fine doing, is the top thing in the world.”
“Next to fine doing,” he said,— and meant it; for his life and his own doings chimed with the word. Nor does the word, even as a verbal confession of faith, stand alone. On the testimony of his friends, and on the testimony of his letters, Keats was no selfish weakling, no puny luxuriator in his own emotions, no mere hectic taster and maker of phrases. He worshiped beauty; he was born a poet, and rightly enough he followed his genius; but he was born also affectionate and generous; in his nature there was much of that glorious something which we call chivalry; and he knew as well as all the preachers could tell him that in any true assize high conduct must always bear away the palm. No more than the apostle of old had he any “poor vanity that works of genius were the first things. No! for that sort of probity and disinterestedness which such men as Bailey possess does hold and grasp the tiptop of any spiritual honors that can be paid to anything in this world.” Truly said, of this world or any other; for many things may be great, but the greatest of all is charity.
It might almost have been expected that genius so sudden in its flowering, so amazingly exceptional, as Keats’s, one of the wonders of human history, would be attended by some strain of disease, some taint, more or less pronounced, of mental or moral unsoundness. It is the more to be rejoiced in, therefore, that his nature, mental, moral, and physical (except for the tuberculosis which he doubtless contracted from his mother, over whom, in her last illness, he, a boy of fifteen, watched with all a son’s and daughter’s faithfulness), was to all appearance eminently sane and normal. As a boy, undersized though he was, he would always be fighting (which is normal, surely), and as a man he showed habitually, with one distressing exception, a manly, self-respecting spirit.
The single exception has to do with his passion for Fanny Brawne, concerning which it may be enough to say that when a man is head over ears in love with a pretty girl, or a girl whom he thinks pretty, and is by her, or by some perversity of Fate, put off, he is never sane. The letters that Keats wrote to his inamorata may have been, as his friendly critic says, “the letters of a surgeon’s apprentice.” For ourselves we will take the critic’s word for it. We have never read them (in our opinion it was indecent or worse to print them), nor should we feel sure of our ability to tell in what respect the love letters of a young doctor might be expected to differ from those of a young schoolmaster or of a young duke of the realm. To be crazy is to be crazy. Enough to say that they were not the letters of the poet Keats. Alas, alas! What a tragedy is human life! What a weak and silly thing is the human heart! A man sees a girl’s face, and behold, he is no longer a reasonable being; his peace of mind is gone, his work hindered, his day shortened, his fame tarnished, his name a laughing-stock. It is that which hath been, and it is that which shall be. As was said of old, so one may feel like saying still, “A man hath no preëminence above a beast; for all is vanity.”
And for all that, considering Keats’s genius, its early development and its miraculous quality, and comparing him with men of his own kind, we must account him on the whole a man surprisingly well-balanced and sane. Call the roll of his famous poetic contemporaries, and few of them will be found saner. Good Archdeacon Bailey, who had abundant opportunity to know, said that common scnse was “a conspicuous part of his character.” Of how many of the others would it ever have occurred to any one to say the like ?
He seems not to have been either crotchety or boastful, though he believed in aiming high and made no scruple of professing, in so many words, that he “ would rather fail than not be among the greatest.” Born fighter that he was, born, too, of the genus irritabile vatum (“when I have any little vexation,” he once wrote, with Lamb-like exaggeration, “it grows in five minutes into a theme for Sophocles ”), he loved peace, and in the Biblical phrase pursued it, for which Mr. Arnold, it is pleasant to see, awards him full credit; but he was not to be trodden upon, he held the popular judgment of poetry in something like contempt (as all poets do, it is to be presumed), and he would not be crowded too hard even by the chiefest of his brethren. The most thorough-going Wordsworthian must read with amusement, if not with temptations to applause, the few clever sentences in which the youthful aspirant for poetic honors, in one of his letters, hits off some of that great man’s foibles. He has no thought of denying Wordsworth’s grandeur, he declares; but not for the sake of a few fine imaginative or domestic passages will he “be bullied into a certain philosophy engendered in the whims of an egoist.” “Every man,” he goes on, “has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself. . . . We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us, and, if we do not agree, seems to put its hand into its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself — but with its subject. How beautiful are the retired flowers! — how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway, crying out, ‘Admire me, I am a violet! Dote upon me, I am a primrose! ’ ”
To another correspondent he expresses a fear that Wordsworth has gone away from town “rather huffed” about something or other, the nature of which does not precisely appear; but adds that he ought not to expect but that every man of wmrth should be “as proud as himself;” a remark concerning which we are bound to acknowledge, sound Wordsworthians as within reason we esteem ourselves, that we rather like the sound of it.
An artist cannot well be without some of the defects — or what more steady-going, lower-flying people are wont to account the defects — that go naturally, if not of necessity, with the artistic temperament. For one thing, he must work more or less by fits and starts. Poems are not to be made —unless it be by a Southey — as a shoemaker makes shoes, so many strokes to the minute. It is a wonder how much Keats accomplished in his few years, and this even if we take no reckoning of his experiments and failures; but there were times, of course, when he could do nothing, and then, equally of course, he could invent the prettiest kind of excuses for himself, excuses that were themselves hardly less than works of genius. At such a minute he would say, for instance, “Neither Poetry, nor Ambition, nor Love have any alertness of countenance as they pass by me; they seem rather like figures on a Greek vase.” Or, if the beauty of the morning operated upon a sense of idleness, he would declare it “more noble to sit like Jove than to fly like Mercury.” “ Let us open our leaves like a flower,” he would say, “and be passive and receptive; budding patiently under the eye of Apollo and taking hints from every noble insect that favors us with a visit.... I have not read any books — the Morning said I was right — I had no idea but of the Morning, and the Thrush said I was right — seeming to say,
And yet my song comes native with the warmth.
And yet the Evening listens.’ ”
Not that he was ever foolish enough to despise knowledge, or trust overmuch to impulses “from a vernal wood,” as if a poet could subsist on inspiration. A few weeks after the date of the letter just quoted, a letter which he himself qualified before he was done as “a mere sophistication,” we find him renouncing a proposed pleasure trip. There is but one thing to prevent his going, he tells his correspondent. “I know nothing,” he says, “ I have read nothing, and I mean to follow Solomon’s directions, ‘Get learning, get understanding.’ I find earlier days are gone by — I find that I can have no enjoyment in the world but continual drinking of knowledge. . . . There is but one way for me. The road lies through application, study, and thought. I will pursue it.”
But as we count it fortunate that he had already had the courage to forsake everything else for the pursuit of poetry, so we must be thankful that now, feeling his educational deficiencies, he did not do what nine professors out of ten, had he had the ill-fortune to consult them, would — very properly, no doubt — have advised him to do; that is to say, cease production for the time being and devote himself to study. That would have been a loss irreparable. His sun was so soon to go down! A mercy it was that he made hay while it shone.
For much of the hay that he made was as good as the sun ever shone on. That it was a short season’s crop may pass unsaid. It is not within the possibilities of human nature, however miraculously endowed, to be mature at twenty-five. Enough, surely, if at that age a man has done a good bit of work of the rarest, divinest quality, — work that, within its range and scope, the greatest and ripest genius could never dream of bettering. That is Keats’s glory. So much as that one need not be either a poet or a critic to affirm; the critics and poets have agreed to affirm it for us. If Tennyson said, as reported, that “Keats, with his high spiritual vision, would have been, if he had lived, the greatest of us all; there is something magical and of the innermost soul of poetry in almost everything which he wrote ; ” and if Arnold put him, in two words, “with Shakespeare,” why, then, for the present, at least, the case is judged, and we who are neither poets nor critics, but only tasters and relishers, can have no call to argue it.
So much being admitted, however, it is not to be assumed that here is an end of things. One may still like to talk a little. Hearing him praised, one may still say,
And to the most of praise add something more.”
Life would be a dull affair for the smaller men if comment and side remark were forever debarred as soon as the bigwigs had settled the main contention.
Leaving on one side, then, the odes and other pieces which by universal consent are perfect, or as nearly so as consists with human frailty,3 let us content ourselves with intimating the profit which readers of a proper youthfulness and other needful, not over critical, qualifications may derive from some of the other and longer poems, which by the same common consent, as well as by the acknowledgment of the man who wrote them, are in every sense imperfect.
Indeed, there are few things in Keats’s letters more interesting in themselves, or more characteristic of their author, than his apologies for these same longer pieces, especially for Endymion.
“Why endeavor after a long poem?” he has heard some one ask. And this is his answer: —
“Do not the lovers of poetry like to have a little region to wander in, where they may pick and choose, and in which the images are so numerous that many are forgotten and found new in a second reading; which may be food for a week’s stroll in the summer ? Do not they like this better than what they can read through before Mrs. Williams comes downstairs? a morning work at most.”
Evidently his “lovers of poetry” are of the tribe of those whose practice we have heard him describing as “a sparing touch of noble books; ” lovers rather than critics or students; browsers and ruminators; not determined upon devouring whole forests, or even entire trees, but content with getting here and there the goodness of a leaf or the sweetness of a blossom. He foresees that Endymion is doomed to be in one way a failure; he knows that his mind at present, in its nonage, is “like a pack of scattered cards.” The words are his own. Yet he confides that there will be poetry in his long poem, and that the right spirits will find it. And so they do. He has touched their disposition to a nicety. They love to “wander in it.” They may never have tried very hard to follow the story; they may not care to read any special student’s supposed discoveries as to just how this part of the action is related to that or the other. But they like the poetry. They never read the poem, or read in it, without finding some. They do not wish it shorter, nor are they conscious of any very sharp regret that it is not better. Wisely or unwisely, they accept it as it is, and are thankful that the young man wrote it, and, having written it, took nobody’s advice against printing it. If they read in it, as we say, why, that is mostly what they do with the Fairy Queen and Paradise Lost. It may be the fault of the poem, or it may be the fault of the reader; or it may be nobody’s fault.
In the case of Endymion, indeed, it requires no exceptional acumen to perceive that the work hangs feebly together, that its construction, its architectonic, if that be the word, is defective past all mending. “Utterly incoherent” is Mr. Arnold’s dictum, and for ourselves we have no inclination to dispute him. Our fault or the poet’s, we have always found it so. But like Mr. Arnold, we feel the breath of genius blowing through it, and therefore, as we say, we find in it not infrequently an hour of good reading.
Such reading, it has sometimes seemed to us (and the poet’s apology, now we think of it, comes to much the same thing), is like walking in a forest, where we cannot see the wood for the trees. All about us they stand, dwindling away and away as we look, till, whichever way we turn, there is no looking farther. Above our heads is a canopy of interlacing branches,
By many a summer’s silent fingering,”
through which, densely as it is woven, steals here and there a sunbeam to play upon the carpet underneath. In such a place we know little and care less whither we may be going. Standing still is a good progress. Not a step but something offers itself,— a flower, a bed of moss, a trailing berry-covered vine, a tuft of ferns. A brook talks to us, a bird sings to us, a vista invites us, a leafy spray, as we brush against it, whispers of beauty and the summer. These, and trifles like these, are what we could specify. All of them together do not make the forest, yet the least of them is not only part of the forest, but is what it is because of the forest. The soul of the forest speaks through it. How incomparably significant becomes of a sudden every common sound. If two branches but rub together, we must stop and listen. If a thrush whistles, we could stand forever to hear it. Not a sight or sound of them all would mean the same, or anything like the same, if it were encountered in the open and by itself. It is the old lesson. The sparrow’s note must come from the alder bough, the shell must be seen on the beach with the tide rippling over it.
And the magical verse, if it is to exercise its full charm,must be found, not in a book of extracts, nor as a fragment, but at home in its native surroundings. It must have been born in the poem, and we must discover it there. The poem which has made the verse must also have put us into the mood to receive it. How often have all readers found this true by its opposite. How often a line quoted is a line from which the glory seems to have departed, a line dépaysé! — as the tree, the bird, the leaf, if we see them in the open country and in the mood of the open country, can never be the same as if we saw them in the forest and in the mood which the forest induces.
We think, then, that the poet’s plea is sound; that his long poem, whatever its shortcomings, is abundantly justified as a good place to wander about, in; that there is poetry (one of the rare things of the world) in it which never would have been produced elsewhere, and which, now that it has been produced, can only be appreciated when read, as scientific men say, in situ. To transfer its beauties to a commonplace book would be like putting roses into a herbarium, or, more justly, perhaps, like setting a seashell on a parlor mantel.
In the long poem, too, as in the forest, though we were near forgetting to speak of it, there is always the chance of finding something unexpected; a line, an epithet, an image, that seems to have come into being since we were last here. Every perusal is thus a kind of voyage of discovery. It is as if the season had changed. New flowers have blossomed, new birds have come from the South, and the wood is a new place.
In all the work of genius, as we began by saying, there is no small part that seems to come from almost anywhere rather than from the mind and intention of the writer. And the more genius, we must believe, the more of this appearance of what is known (or unknown) as inspiration. Yet in the case of Keats, a man of genius all compact, one has only to read his letters to see (and glad we must be to see it) that, for all his youthfulness and comparatively slight acquaintance with books, he was pretty well aware of himself, having withal a kind of philosophy of life and many shrewd ideas concerning the poetic art. His gift was no external, detachable thing, an influence of which he could give no account, and over which he had no control, like, shall we say, the inscrutable, uncanny, unrelated mathematical faculty of a Zerah Colburn, a thing by itself, significant of no general capacity on the part of its possessor. The man himself was a genius.
And being such, he was safest when he followed his own leadings. When he humbled himself to write what he hoped men would pay for, as, under pressure of his brother’s and sister’s need, he persuaded himself he might do (“the very corn which is now so beautiful, as if it had only took to ripening yesterday, is for the market; so, why should I be delicate ?”), he was mostly wasting his time. “I have great hope of success,” he writes, “because I make use of my judgment more deliberately than I have yet done.” It was a vain dependence. “Live and learn,” says the proverb. And, prose men or poets, the brightest must mind the lesson. But Keats, alas, could not live. He was “ born for death,” and was already marked. His work, the best of it, was already finished. Racked and broken, devoured by the very madness of passion and wasting away with incurable disease, his tale henceforth is pure tragedy. If his passion was a weakness, — and no doubt it was, —to colder-blooded men a state of mind incredible, and to Pharisees and fools a thing to mock at,— so let us call it, and there be done. It was past cure, so much is certain. Here and there in his letters there are still gleams of brightness, sad touches of pleasantry. To his sister, about whose health he is continually in a fever, lest she should be going as his mother and his brother Tom have gone (and he himself far on the road), he is always a little improved, always making the most of the doctor’s words of encouragement; but between times, to some other correspondent, he shows for a moment the plague that is consuming his life. It is heartbreaking to hear him. “If I had any chance of recovery this passion would kill me.” He cannot name the one of whom he is night and day thinking. “I am afraid to write to her — to receive a letter from her — to see her handwriting would break my heart.” Even to see her name written would be more than he could bear. “ Oh, Brown, I have coals of fire in my breast. It surprises me that the human heart is capable of containing and bearing so much misery.”
And strange it is how cruel a price a man can be made to pay for what, at the worst, is only a piece of natural foolishness.
Be thou faithful, but not fond ;
To the altar’s foot thy fellow seek, —
The Furies wait beyond.
Never man found this truer than Keats.
There is but one letter more, — dated a month later, and addressed to the same friend. This time the dying man knows that he is taking leave, though he still quotes a doctor’s soothing diagnosis. He is bringing his philosophy to bear, he says; if he recovers, he will do thus and so; but if not, all his faults will be forgiven. And then: “Write to George [his brother] as soon as you receive this, and tell him how I am, as far as you can guess; and also a note to my sister, who walks about my imagination like a ghost, she is so like Tom. I can scarcely bid you good-bye, even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow. God bless you!”
How wasteful is Nature! Once or twice in an age, one man out of millions, she brings forth a poet; and then, while his powers are still budding, she sends on them a sudden blight, and anon cuts him down. Wasteful, we say. But who can tell ? Perhaps she also, like the rest of us, is doing what she can, and, like the rest of us, is disappointed when she fails.
- How largely he profited by his study of Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and other poets, especially in the enrichment of his vocabulary, is shown by M. E. de Sélincourt in the notes and appendices to his recent admirable edition of Keats’s Poems. The subject is interesting, and is treated in the most painstaking manner.↩
- At this very time, by the bye, Hazlitt was lecturing, and Keats, after hearing him, reports to his brother (February 14, 1818), “ Hazlitt’s last lecture was on Thomson, Cowper, and Crabbe. He praised Thomson and Cowper, but he gave Crabbe an unmerciful licking.”↩
- We speak thus without forgetting that an American poet once wrote (what a reputable American periodical printed) a revised version of one of the odes, just to show how easily Keats could he improved upon. The good man might have heen, though we believe he was not, brother to the one of whom we have all heard, who declared his opinion that there were n’t ten men in Boston who could have written Shakespeare’s plays.↩