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E have now reached the close of a melancholy
history—that of the extinction, in a space of less than twenty-six years, of a bright life foredoomed by inherited disease. We turn to another subject-the intellectual development and the writings of Keats, what they were, and how they were treated. Here again there are some sombre tints.
A minute anecdote, apparently quite authentic, shows that a certain propensity to the jingle of rhyme was innate in Keats : Haydon is our informant. " An old lady (Mrs. Grafty, of Craven Street, Finsbury) told his brother George—when, in reply to her question what John was doing, he told her he had determined to become a poet—that this was very odd; because when he could just speak, instead of answering questions put to him, he would always make a rhyme to the last word people said, and then laugh.” This, however, is the only rhyming-anecdote that we hear of Keats's childhood or mere boyhood: there is nothing to show that at school he made the faintest attempt at verse-spinning. The earliest known experiment of his is the "Imitation of Spenser"--four Spenserian stanzas, beginning
“Now Morning from her orient chamber came,”
and very poor stanzas they are. This Imitation was written while he was living at Edmonton, in his nineteenth year, and thus there was nothing singularly precocious in Keats, either in the age at which he began versifying, or in the skill with which he first addressed himself to the task. I might say more of other verses, juvenile in the amplest sense of the term, but such remarks would belong more properly to a later section of this volume. I will therefore only observe here that the earliest poems of his in which I can discern anything even distantly approaching to poetic merit or to his own characteristic style (and these distantly indeed) are the lines "To
“ Hadst thou lived in days of old,” and "Calidore, a Fragment,"
Young Calidore is paddling o'er the lake.”
The dates of these two compositions are not stated, but they were probably later than the opening of 1815, and if so Keats would have been nearly or quite twenty when he wrote them and this is far remote from precocity. Let us say then, once for all, that, whatever may be the praise and homage due to Keats for ranking as one of the immortals when he died aged twenty-five, no sort of encomium can be awarded to him on the ground that, when he first began, he began early and well. All his rawest attempts, be it added to his credit, appear to have been kept to himself; for Cowden Clarke, who was certainly his chief literary confidant in those tentative days, says that until Keats produced to him his sonnet “written on the day that Mr. Leigh Hunt left prison" the youth's attempts at verse-writing were to him unknown. The 3rd of February 1815 was the day of Hunt's liberation, so that the endeavour had by this time been going on in silence for something like a year or
It was not till 1816—or let us say when he was just of age—that Keats produced a truly excellent thing. This is the sonnet “On first looking into Chapman's Homer.” A copy of Chapman's translation had been lent to Cowden Clarke; he and Keats sat up till daylight reading it, the young poet shouting with delight, and by ten o'clock on the following morning Keats sent the sonnet to Clarke. It was therefore a sudden immediate inspiration, a little rill of lava flowing out of a poetic volcano, solidified at
This is not only the first excellent thing written by Keats—it is the only excellent thing contained in his first volume of verse.
This volume came out (as already mentioned) in the early spring of 1817. The sonnet dedicating the book to Leigh Hunt, written off at a moment's notice " when the last proof-sheet was brought from the printer," was evidently composed in winter-time. The title of the volume is “Poems by John Keats.” The motto on its title-page is from Spenser
" What more felicity can fall to creature
Than to enjoy delight with liberty?'
-a motto embodying with considerable completeness the feeling which is predominant in the volume, and generally in Keats's poetic works. We always feel “delight” to be his true element, whatever may be the undertone of pathos opposed to it by poetic development and treatment, and by adverse fate. "Liberty” also—a free flight of the faculties, a rejection of conventional trammels, whether in life or in verse—was highly characteristic of him; and perhaps the youthful friend of Hunt intended the word "liberty" to be understood by his readers as having a certain political flavour as well. In addition to some writings just specified, the volume contained "I stood tiptoe upon a little hill ” ; the three epistles “To George Felton Mathew” (who was a gentleman of literary habits, afterwards employed in administering the Poor Law), “To my brother George,” and “ To Charles Cowden Clarke "; sixteen sonnets; and “Sleep and Poetry." The question of the poetic deseryings of these compositions belongs more properly to our final chapter. I shall here give only a few details bearing upon the circumstances of their production. The poem “ I stood tiptoe” &c. was written beside a gate near Caen Wood, Highgate. It must have been begun in a summer, no doubt that of 1816, and was still uncompleted in the middle of December of that year. “The Epistle to Mathew," dated November 1815, testifies to the early admiration of Keats for Thomas Chatterton; though the dedication of “Endymion," "Inscribed to the memory Thomas Chatterton," was but poorly forestalled by such lines as the following
“ Where we may soft humanity put on,
And sit and rhyme, and think on Chatterton,
Moreover, the first of his youthful sonnets is addressed to Chatterton. The "Epistle to George," August 1816, opens with a reference to “many a dreary hour” which John Keats has passed, fearing he would never be able to write good poetry, however much he might gaze on sky, honey-bees, and the beauty of woman. · The “Epistle to Clarke,” September 1816, pays ample tribute to the guidance which he had afforded to Keats into the realms of poetry, and contains a couplet which has of late been very often quoted
“ Who read for me the sonnet swelling loudly
Up to its climax, and then dying proudly ?”
“O Solitude, if I must with thee dwell,”
is the first thing that Keats ever published. It had previously appeared in The Examiner for May 5, 1816, and is clearly one of the best of these early sonnets. The sonnet which begins with the unmetrical line
“How many bards gild the lapses of time"
was included in the very first batch of verses by Keats which Cowden Clarke showed to Leigh Hunt. Hunt expressed “unhesitating and prompt admiration” of some other one among the compositions; and Horace Smith, who was present, reading out the sonnet now before us, praised as "a well-condensed expression " the contorted and inefficient line
“That distance of recognizance bereaves,”