« AnteriorContinuar »
his friends, he writes to Reynolds : "Since
agree that the thing is bad, it must be so-but look over it again, and examine into the motives, the seeds, from which everyone sentence sprang.
I have not the slightest feeling of humility towards the public, or anything in existence, but the Eternal Being, the Principle of Beauty, and the Memory of Great Men. When I am writing for myself, for the mere sake of the moment's enjoyment, perhaps nature has its course with me; but a Preface is written for the public. I never wrote one single line of poetry with the least shadow of public thought.”
In this temper he must have written not only Endymim, but every poem he composed, and if he was losing that emotional and self-centred character, as perhaps he was when he wrote his latest things, and resigned Hyperion, it is well that he died. How peculiar and how well-defined his mental habits were, and how well understood by himself, may be seen in his letters as well as in his poems. He sometimes thinks he has no character, scarcely any identity. “It is a wretched thing to confess, but it is a very fact, that not one word I ever utter can be taken as an opinion growing out of my identical nature. When I am in a room with people, if I am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me, so that I am in a very little time annihilated ;-not only among men, it would be the
ame in a nursery of children. I do not know whether I make myself wholly understood.” Again he says to Baillie, that he does not think himself more in the right than others, but that "nothing in this world” is proveable, and that he is sometimes so sceptical as to think Poetry itself a mere Jack-o'-Lanthorn to amuse people. With all this curious modesty and simplicity of nature, how trenchant are his perceptions, and how suddenly they are drawn up into philosophy. He writes from the seaside at Teignmouth, in rhyme, that he has a mysterious tale not easy to tell : he sat upon a limpet-covered rock among the breakers : it was a quiet evening, and he was happy, seeing
An untumultuous fringe of silver foam
The greater on the less feeds evermore, – and suddenly happiness was gone from him ; he felt that evil was in the core and constitution of things :
Still am I sick of it, and though to-day,
and he ends by a rather obscure but expressive assertion that he would rather be a clapping-bell to a Missionary Church, than suffer such reflections as those to overcome
* In Lord Houghton's admirable “Life and Letters of John Keats,” Moxon, 1848, to which we refer the reader for full details and documents, the paragraph of the rhymed letter we quote above suffers by some mischance from misprints. Lampit for “limpet,” wave for “ weave,” man for " maw.”
But the year 1818, when Endymion was published (April), and the severe criticisms followed, certainly contained the death-warrant of Keats. In the month of June he went north with his dear friend Mr. C. Armitage Brown, to Cumberland lakes, to Ayrshire, Burns' country, over to Ireland, on to Iona and Staffa, and further, a considerable tour, which his friends thought would be beneficial to him, his health already showing symptoms of decay. But when he returned to London, a young lady came to his friend's house to live, a girl towards whom Keats seems to have first felt admiration as "a Charmian," “a leopardess,” but who soon exercised an absolute sway over his feelings. Marriage was impossible, as his small patrimony was exhausted, his health uncertain, and his profession given up. Then his brother Tom required his affectionate care, and for months he tended the dying boy, seeing his own destiny enacted before his eyes. Tom died in the beginning of December. These two last events with their depressing anxieties, added to his devouring ambition and apparent want of success, began the lingering illness that terminated in the early death he had inherited.
After the death of his brother, Brown prevailed on Keats to reside in his house, and next year, 1819, was thus begun happily, with Hyperion under his hand, that mighty fragment that astonished even his enemies. A nightingale had built her nest close to the house, and its singing often threw Keats into a trance of enjoyment. He wrote the Ode to a Nightingale, and about the same
time that to a Grecian Urn. On February 14th he writes to his brother in America, that he will send him The Pot of Basil, and The Eve of St. Agnes next packet, both being nearly done. In the summer his best of friends, Brown, took him to the Isle of Wight again, and there they amused themselves by composing a drama together; this was called Otho the Great, and was actually accepted by Elliston, but never performed. Lord Houghton says the unfitness of this tragedy for representation is too apparent to permit the manager to be accused of unfairness; for my own part I would not like even to read any newly resuscitated work by Keats, inferior to the poems published by himself. From the Isle of Wight he went to Winchester, thence to London, and at the end of the year the first visible intimation of approaching death took place in the shape of a few drops of arterial blood that came into his mouth after a cold drive outside the coach to Hampstead. "I know the colour of that blood,” he said, “it is arterial blood; that drop is my death-warrant, I must die.”
The history of the next year, 1820, the last of his life, is a painful one. It is with Keats as a poet we have to deal, and therefore we will pass lightly over it, distracted by many things, but principally by his unhappy love, he gradually succumbed. In June, the volume entitled Lamia, Isabella, The Pot of Basil, and other Poems, was published, and well-received, Jeffrey writing of it in the Edinburgh, as we have said. In this Hyperion is included at the publisher's request, and contrary to the in
clination of the author, who, it is stated, desisted from finishing it in consequence of the unfavourable reception of Endymion. This remarkable declaration seems to me to accord but ill with the fact, that it was begun some time after the publication of that poem. Keats himself speaks in one of his letters as if he felt as he went on writing it, that it was too Miltonic to satisfy him, and there, it appears to me, we may find the cause of his dissatisfaction. Besides, I fear he was now thinking of resembling the classic models in treating such a subject, and perhaps the exuberant fancy, the extreme subtilty of imagination, the richness of expression, and the sense of luxury we feel in nearly every line of Keats' poems, proceeded from the blind instincts of a boy who would have become more and more correct as he became more and more critical, till at last his more perfect things would have been worthless.
I do not mean to risk a decided opinion on this subject, but it is certain that Keats spoke of serious application to books and hard study being soon necessary to him, and that his latest works, the dramas and the Cap and Bells, are different from his earlier works and very inferior. The fate of distinction is to have every production raked together and printed, but this seems a hard trial to the poet. Another form of Hyperion has also been printed very inferior to that in his own published volume. This is said by Lord Houghton to have been a subsequent version of the great fragment; if so his powers were desidedly on the decline, caused it may have been in that