It would, of course, be open to a cruel critic to retort that the world does not ask from the poet “feverish attempts,” but deeds accomplished, and that it is useless for a writer to express his regret at a publication which he was under no necessity to produce. This, however, would be purblind criticism. Keats knew, and the world soon found out, that his poem had in it the life of genius, and such life, however immature, is always precious.
Keats is the most sensuous of poets, and he is also one of the purest Surely none but a poet pure to the heart’s core could have conceived the lovely vision of Madeline, on the eve of St. Agnes, undressing in the light of the wintry moon, while her lover Porphyro gazes on her beauty unespied, hoping to win his bride by the kind help of the saint.
“A casement high and triple-arched there was,
All garlanded with carven imageries,
Of fruits and flowers, and branches of knot-grass,
And diamonded with panes of quaint device.
. . . . . . . .
“Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
And threw warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast,
As down she knelt for Heaven’s grace and boon;
Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,
And on her silver cross soft amethyst,
And on her hair a glory, like a saint!
She seemed a splendid angel, newly drest,
Save wings, for heaven: Porphyro grew faint:
She knelt so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint.
“Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,
Of all her wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees.
Half-hidden, like a mermaid in seaweed,
Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees
In fancy fair St. Agnes in her bed,
But dares not look behind or all the charm is fled.
“Soon, trembling in her soft and chilly nest,
In sort of wakeful swoon, perplexed she lay,
Until the poppied warmth of sleep oppressed
Her soothed limbs, and soul fatigued away;
Flown, like a thought, until the morrow-day;
Blissfully havened both from joy and pain;
Clasped like a missal where swart Paynims pray;
Blinded alike from sunshine and from rain,
As though a rose should shut and be a bud again.”
More than this I must not quote, although the poem grows in beauty to its close; but I have transcribed these stanzas because they are alike characteristic of the poet’s wealth of fancy and of his delicacy in treating a difficult theme. “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil,” a poem which drew forth the early genius of Mr. Millais, is divided chronologically from the “Eve of St. Agnes” by a very slight interval. Yet it is more immature, and although full of luxuriant imagery, contains no passage of supreme excellence. It proves at least that Keats possessed the gift denied to many poets, of telling a story poetically. He could do something far higher than this. The “Hyperion,” which Byron called as sublime as Aeschylus, shows how noble Keats could be in effort when the full attainment of his ideal was denied him; but the perfection of his art is to be seen chiefly in his “Odes.” “The “Ode to a Nightingale,” with its two final stanzas, immortal in their loveliness; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which is, perhaps, his most complete and perfect poem; and the “Ode to Autumn,” ripe with the glory of the season it describes must ever have a place among the most precious gems of lyrical poetry. Before poems such as these, the richest fruits of a fine genius, criticism is dumb, or must content itself with the expression of admiration. As a sonnet-writer, too, Keats takes his place with the best in the language, his finest effort in this compressed and difficult form of poetical expression being inspired by Chapman’s picturesque and fiery translation of Homer.