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It was the misfortune of Keats as a poet, to be either extravagantly praised or unmercifully condemned. The former had its origin in the generous partialities of friendship, somewhat obtrusively displayed; the latter in some degree, to resentment of that friendship, connected as it was with party politics, and peculiar views of society as well as of poetry.
An interval of more than a quarter of a century has fully entitled a brother poet, to come forward as the biographer of John Keats to dispel alike illusions and prejudices. Keats, it is now acknowledged, was a true poet; he had the creative fancy, the ideal enthusiam," and the nervous susceptibility of the poetical temperament. If, it has been justly remarked, we consider his extreme youth and delicate health, his solitary and interesting self-instruction, the severity of the attacks made upon him by his hostile and powerful critics, and above all, the original richness and picturesqueness of his conceptions and imagery, even when they run to waste, he appears to be one of the greatest of the young self-taught poets. Michael Bruce, and Henry Kirke White cannot for a moment be compared with him he is more like the Milton of "Lycidas," or the Spenser of the "Tears of the Muses."
"With the works of Keats," says Mr. Monckton Milnes, "I had always felt a strong sympathy, accompanied by a ceaseless wonder at their wealth of diction and imagery, which was increased by the consciousness that all that he had produced was rather a promise than an accomplishment; he had ever seemed to me to have done more at school in poetry, than any man who had made it the object of a mature life. This adolescent character had given me an especial interest in the moral history of this Marcellus of the empire of English song, and when my imagination measured what he might have become by what he was, it stood astounded at the result."
The presenting to public view the true picture of a man of genius, without either wounding the feelings of mourning friends or detracting from his existing reputation, obliged his biographer to consider what course was most likely to raise the character of Keats in the estimation of those most capable of judging it.
I saw (says Mr. Milnes) how grievously he was misapprehended even by many who wished to see in him only what was, best. I perceived that many, who heartily admired his poetry, looked on it as the production of a wayward, erratic, genius, self-indulgent in conceits, disrespectful of the rules and limitations of Art, not only unlearned, but careless of knowledge, not only exaggerated but despising proportion. I knew that his moral disposition was assumed to be weak, gluttonous of sensual excitement, querulous of severe judgment, fantastical in its tastes, and lackadaisical in its sentiments. He was all but universally believed to have been killed by a stupid, savage, article in a review, and to the compassion generated by his untoward fate he was held to owe a certain personal interest, which his poetic reputation hardly justified.
When, then, I found, from the undeniable documentary evidence of his inmost life, that nothing could be further from the truth than this opinion, it seemed to me, that a portrait, so dissimilar from the general assumption, would
Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats. Edited by Richard Monckton Milnes. 2 vols. Edward Moxon.
hardly obtain credit, and might rather look like the production of a paradoxical partiality than the result of conscientious inquiry. I had to show that Keats, in his intellectual character, reverenced simplicity and truth above all things, and abhorred whatever was merely strange and strong-that he was ever learning and ever growing more conscious of his own ignorance,—that his models were always the highest and the purest, and that his earnestness in aiming at their excellence, was only equal to the humble estimation of his own effortsthat his poetical course was one of distinct and positive progress, exhibiting a self-command and self-direction which enabled him to understand and avoid the faults even of the writers he was most naturally inclined to esteem, and to liberate himself at once, not only from the fetters of literary partizanship, but even from the subtler influences and associations of the accidental literary spirit of his own time. I had also to exhibit the moral peculiarities of Keats as the effects of a strong will, passionate temperament, indomitable courage, and a somewhat contemptuous disregard of other men-to represent him as unflinchingly meeting all criticism of his writings, and caring for the Article, which was supposed to have had such homicidal success, just so far as it was an evidence of the little power he had as yet acquired over the sympathies of mankind, and no more. I had to make prominent the brave front he opposed to poverty and pain-to show, how love of pleasure was in him continually subordinate to higher aspirations, notwithstanding the sharp zest of enjoyment which his mercurial nature conferred on him; and above all, I had to illustrate how little he abused his full possession of that imaginative faculty, which enables the poet to vivify the phantoms of the hour, and to purify the objects of sense, beyond what the moralist may sanction, or the mere practical man can understand.
To effect these objects, Mr. Milnes deemed it best to act simply as editor of the Life which was, as it were, already written. Few of the remains of the poet had escaped the affectionate care of Mr. Charles Brown, a retired Russia merchant, at once a devoted friend and protector of John Keats. Even the preliminary arrangements for giving these documents to the world, were actually in progress, when the accident of attending a meeting on the subject of the Colonisation of New Zealand altered all Mr. Brown's plans, and led to his collections of Keats's writings, accompanied with a biographical notice, being transferred to their present editor.
John Keats was born in London, October 29th, 1795 (not 1796, as generally recorded), in the house of his grandfather, the proprietor of large livery stables on the Pavement in Moorfields. He was a seventh month child, but his constitution is said not to have exhibited any peculiar signs of debility during childhood. In due time he was sent with his brother George, older than himself, and Thomas, younger, to a school at Enfield, then in high repute. It was not, however, till after he had been some time at school, that his intellectual ambition suddenly developed itself: he determined to carry off all the first prizes in literature, and he succeeded. The quantity of translations which he made during the last two years of his stay at Enfield is said to have been surprising.
On the death of their remaining parent, the young Keatses were consigned to the guardianship of Mr. Abbey, a merchant. John was apprenticed for five years to Mr. Hammond, a surgeon at Edmonton. At this time his friend and literary counsellor was Charles Cowden Clarke, in whom the poet found a companion capable of sympathising with all his highest tastes and finest sentiments, and his powers gradually expanded in so genial an atmosphere. Spenser, Chaucer, and Byron were his especial favourites, and the strange tragedy of the fate of Chat
terton, the "Marvellous Boy, the sleepless soul that perished in its pride,' so disgraceful to the age in which it occurred and so awful a warning to all others of the cruel evils, which the mere apathy and ignorance of the world can inflict on genius, is a frequent subject of allusion and interest in his letters and poems written at this time.
Upon removing to London, professedly with the view to walk the hospitals, one of his acquaintance, and one who had much influence upon his subsequent career, was Mr. Leigh Hunt, at that time alike eminent for his poetical originality and his political persecutions. The heart of Keats leaped towards the persecuted poet in human and poetic brotherhood, and the earnest Sonnet on the day he left his prison riveted the connexion. Through Leigh Hunt he also became intimate with Hazlitt, Shelley, Haydon, and Godwin, with Mr. Basil Montague and his distinguished family, and with Mr. Charles Ollier, a young publisher, himself a poet, who, out of sheer admiration, offered to publish a volume of his productions. This little work, the beloved first-born of so great a genius, scarcely touched the public attention. It is not surprising, therefore, that Keats attributed his want of success to the favourite scape-goat of unhappy authors-an inactive publisher-and incurred the additional affliction of a breach of his friendship with Mr. Ollier.
In the previous autumn Keats was in the habit of frequently passing the evening in his friend's painting-room, where many men of genius were wont to meet, and, sitting before some picture on which he was engaged, criticise, argue, defend, attack, and quote their favourite writers. Keats used to call it "Making us wings for the night." The morning after one of these innocent and happy symposia, Haydon received a note inclosing the picturesque sonnet
Great Spirits now on earth are sojourning, &c.
Keats adding, that the preceding evening had wrought him up, and he could not forbear sending it. Haydon in his acknowledgment, suggested the omission of part of it; and also mentioned that he would forward it to Wordsworth; he received this reply
MY DEAR SIR,-Your letter has filled me with a proud pleasure, and shall be kept by me as a stimulus to exertion. I begin to fix my eyes on an horizon. My feelings entirely fall in with yours with regard to the ellipsis, and I glory in it. The idea of your sending it to Wordsworth puts me out of breath-you know with what reverence I would send my well wishes to him, Yours sincerely,
It should here be remembered that Wordsworth was not then what he is now, that he was confounded with much that was thought ridiculous and unmanly in the new school, and that it was something for so young a student to have torn away the veil of prejudice then hanging over that now-honoured name, and to have proclaimed his reverence in such earnest words, while so many men of letters could only scorn or jeer.
The little congeniality of the profession to which Keats had been brought up, and the career opened to him by his literary success and connexions, became every day more manifest. He was soon convinced that he was unfit for the line of life on which he had expended so many years of his study, and a considerable part of his property, and he records in a letter to Reynolds, how he first repaired to the country in the pursuit of health, and, by Haydon's advice, to brace his powers by undistracted study.
MY DEAR REYNOLDS,-My brothers are anxious that I should go by myself into the country; they have always been extremely fond of me, and now that Haydon has pointed out how necessary it is that I should be alone to improve myself, they give up the temporary pleasure of being with me continually for a great good which I hope will follow; so I shall soon be out of town. You must soon bring all your present troubles to a close, and so must I, but we must, like the Fox, prepare for a fresh swarm of flies. Banish money-Banish sofas -Banish wine-Banish music; but right Jack Health, honest Jack Health, true Jack Health. Banish Health and banish all the world.
Your sincere friend,
He first repaired to Carisbrooke, in the Isle of Wight, where he amusingly describes himself, in another letter to the same invaluable friend, as unpacking his books, putting them in a snug corner, pinning up Haydon, and Mary, Queen of Scots, and Milton with his daughters, in a row. In the same letter (dated April 17, 1817), he announces his intention to forthwith commence his "Endymion." It appears that the sojourn in Primrose Island, as he called it, with its alleys, copses, and quiet freshes, did not answer his expectations. In a letter to Mr. Hunt, written in the early part of May, from Margate, he says:
I went to the Isle of Wight, thought so much about poetry, so long together, that I could not get any sleep at night; and moreover, I know not how it is, I could not get wholesome food. By this means, in a week or so, I became not over capable in my upper stories, and set off pell-mell for Margate, at least 150 miles, because, forsooth, I fancied I should like my old lodgings here, and could continue to do without trees. Another thing, I was too much in solitude, and consequently was obliged to be in continual burning of thought as an only resource. However, Tom is with me at present, and we are very comfortable. We intend, though, to get among some trees. How have you got on among them? How are the nymphs ?-I suppose they have led you a fine dance. Where are you now?
This letter is signed John Keats, alias Junkets, an appellation given him in play upon his name, and in allusion to his friends of Fairy-land. It appears that, notwithstanding his migratory fever, that he was at this time advancing with his poem, and had come to an arrangement with Messrs. Taylor and Hessey respecting its publication. The following letter, which is so highly characteristic of its author, indicates that these gentlemen gave him tangible proofs of their interest in his welfare.
Margate, May 16th, 1817.
MY DEAR SIR,-I am extremely indebted to for your liberality in the shape of manufactured rag, value 201., and shall immediately proceed to destroy some of the minor heads of that hydra the Dun; to conquer which the knight need have no sword, shield, cuirass, cuisses, herbadgeon, spear, casque, greaves, paldrons, spurs, chevron, or any other scaly commodity, but he need only take the Bank-note of Faith and Cash of Salvation, and set out against the monster, invoking the aid of no Archinago or Urganda, but finger me the paper, light as the Sybil's leaves in Virgil, whereat the fiend skulks off with the tail between his legs. Touch him with this enchanted paper, and he whips you his head away as fast as a snail's horn; but then the horrid propensity he has to put it up again has discouraged many very valiant knights. He is such a neverending, still-beginning, sort of a body, like my landlady of the Bell. I think I could make a nice little allegorical poem, called "The Dun," where we would have the Castle of Carelessness, the Drawbridge of Credit, Sir Novelty Fashion's expedition against the City of Tailors, &c. &c. I went day by day at my poem for a month; at the end of which time, the other day, I found my brain so
overwrought, that I had neither rhyme nor reason in it, so was obliged to give up for a few days. I hope soon to be able to resume my work. I have endeavoured to do so once or twice; but to no purpose. Instead of poetry, I have a swimming in my head, and feel all the effects of a mental debauch, lowness of spirits, anxiety to go on, without the power to do so, which does not at all tend to my ultimate progression. However, to-morrow I will begin my next month. This evening I go to Canterbury, having got tired of Margate; I was not right in my head when I came. At Canterbury I hope the remembrance of Chaucer will set me forward like a billiard ball. I have some idea of seeing the Continent some time this summer.
In repeating how sensible I am of your kindness, I remain, your obedient servant and friend, JOHN KEATS.
This habit of following out an idea into all its most fantastic ramifications, rollicking in the fun of the thing, without much regard to a perfectly correct diction or imagery, is amusingly pourtrayed in the following extract from a letter written from Oxford, whither he repaired in September.
Give my sincerest respects to Mrs. Dilke, saying that I have not forgiven myself for not having got her the little box of medicine I promised, and that, had I remained at Hampstead, I would have made precious havoc with her house and furniture-drawn a great harrow over her garden-poisoned Boxer -eaten her clothes-pegs-fried her cabbages-fricaseed (how is it spelt?) her radishes-ragouted her onions-belaboured her beat-root-outstripped her scarlet-runners-parlez-vous'd with her french-beans-devoured her mignon or mignionette-metamorphosed her bell-handles-splintered her looking-glasses -bullocked at her cups and saucers-agonised her decanters-put old Pto pickle in the brine-tub-disorganised her piano-dislocated her candlesticks -emptied her wine-bins in a fit of despair-turned out her maid to grass-and astonished B-; whose letter to her on these events I would rather see than the original copy of the Book of Genesis.
Of Mr. Dilke, he says, in the same letter; "Tell him to shoot fair, and not to have at the poor devils in a furrow; when they are flying, he may fire, and nobody will be the wiser." To Reynolds he writes at about the same period; "So you are determined to be my mortal foe-draw a sword at me, and I will forgive-put a bullet in my brain, and I will shake it out as a dew-drop from the lion's mane-put me on a gridiron and I will fry with great complacency-but-oh, horror! to come upon me in the shape of a dun!-Send me bills! As I say to my tailor, send me bills and I'll never employ you more."
The first three books of "Endymion" were finished in September, and portions of the poem had come to be seen and canvassed by literary friends. With a singular anticipation of the injustice and calumny he should be subject to as belonging to "the Cockney School," his biographer remarks, he began at this time to stand up stoutly for his originality whatever it might be, not being marred by the assistance, influence, or counsel of Hunt, or any one else.
In November, Keats was at Leatherhead, and his correspondence from thence contains many touches that do credit to his head and heart. "To a man of your nature," he says, in a letter to Mr. Bailey, "such a letter as's must have been extremely cutting. What occasions the greater part of the world's quarrels? Simply this: two minds meet, and do not understand each other time enough to prevent any shock or surprise at the conduct of either party. As soon as I had known three days, I had got enough of his character not to have been surprised at such a letter