CHAPTER IV (About John Keats by Sidney Colvin)
THE ‘POEMS’ OF 1817
Spirit and chief contents of the volume—Sonnets and rimed heroics—The Chapman sonnet—The ‘How many bards’ sonnet—The sex-chivalry group—The Leigh Hunt group—The Haydon pair—The Leander sonnet—Epistles—History of the ‘heroic’ couplet—The closed and free systems—Marlowe—Drayton—William Browne—Chapman and Sandys—Decay of the free system—William Chamberlayne—Milton and Marvell—Waller—Katherine Philips—Dryden—Pope and his ascendency—Reaction: The Brothers Warton—Symptoms of Emancipation—Coleridge, Wordsworth and Scott—Leigh Hunt and couplet reform—Keats to Mathew: influence of Browne—Calidore: influence of Hunt—Epistle to George Keats—Epistle to Cowden Clarke—Sleep and Poetry and I stood tiptoe—Analysis of Sleep and Poetry—Double invocation—Vision of the Charioteer—Battle-cry of the new poetry—Its strength and weakness—Challenge and congratulation—Encouragements acknowledged—Analysis of I stood tiptoe—Intended induction to Endymion—Relation to Elizabethans—Relation to contemporaries—Wordsworth and Greek Mythology—Tintern Abbey and the three stages—Contrasts of method—Evocation versus Exposition.
The note of Keats’s early volume is accurately struck in the motto from Spenser which he prefixed to it:—
What more felicity can fall to creature
Than to enjoy delight with liberty?
The element in which his poetry moves is liberty, the consciousness of release from those conventions and restraints, not inherent in its true nature, by which the art had for the last hundred years been hampered. And the spirit which animates him is essentially the spirit of delight: delight in the beauty and activities of nature, in the vividness of sensation, in the charm of fable and romance, in the thoughts of friendship and affection, in anticipations of the future, and in the exercise of the art itself which expresses and communicates all these joys.
Technically considered, the volume consists almost entirely of experiments in two metrical forms: the one, the Italian sonnet of octave and sestet, not long fully re-established in England after being disused, with some exceptions, since Milton: the other, the decasyllabic or five-stressed couplet first naturalized by Chaucer, revived by the Elizabethans in all manner of uses, narrative, dramatic, didactic, elegiac, epistolary, satiric, and employed ever since as the predominant English metre outside of lyric and drama. The only exceptions in the volume are the boyish stanzas in imitation of Spenser,—truly rather of Spenser’s eighteenth century imitators; the Address to Hope of February 1815, quite in the conventional eighteenth century style and diction, though its form, the sextain stanza, is ancient; the two copies of verses To some Ladies and On receiving a curious Shell from some Ladies, composed for the Misses Mathew, about May of the same year, in the triple-time jingle most affected for social trifles from the days of Prior to those of Tom Moore; and the set of seven-syllabled couplets drafted in February 1816 for George Keats to send as a valentine to Miss Wylie. So far as their matter goes these exceptions call for little remark. Both the sea-shell verses and the valentine spring from a brain, to quote a phrase of Keats’s own,
—new stuff’d in youth with triumphs gay
Of old romance,—
especially with chivalric images and ideas from Spenser. Of the second set of shell stanzas it may perhaps be noted that they seem to suggest an acquaintance with Oberon and Titania not only through the Midsummer Night’s Dream but through Wieland’s Oberon, a romance poem which Sotheby’s translation had made well known in England and in which the fairy king and queen are divided by a quarrel far deeper and more durable than in Shakespeare’s play. (1)
Taking first the score or so of sonnets in the volume, we find that none of them are love-sonnets and that few are written in any high mood of passion or exaltation. They are for the most part of the class called ‘occasional’,—records of pleasant experience, addresses of friendly greeting or invocation, or compact meditations on a single theme. They bespeak a temper cordial and companionable as well as enthusiastic, manifest sincerity in all expressions of personal feeling, and contain here and there a passage of fine mature poetry. These, however, are seldom sustained for more than a single quatrain. The great exception of course is the sonnet, almost too well known to quote,—but I will quote it nevertheless,—on Chapman’s Homer. That walk in the morning twilight from Clerkenwell to the Borough had enriched our language with what is by common consent one of its masterpieces in this form, having a close unsurpassed for the combined qualities of serenity and concentration: concentration twofold, first flashing on our mind’s eye the human vision of the explorer and his companions with their looks and gestures, then symbolically evoking through that vision a whole world-wide range of the emotions of discovery.
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer rul’d as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
The ‘realms of gold’ lines in the Chapman sonnet, recording Keats’s range of reading in our older poetry, had been in a measure anticipated in this other, written six months earlier (2):—
How many bards gild the lapses of time!
A few of them have ever been the food
Of my delighted fancy,—I could brood
Over their beauties, earthly, or sublime:
And often, when I sit me down to rhyme,
These will in throngs before my mind intrude:
But no confusion, no disturbance rude
Do they occasion; ’tis a pleasing chime.
So the unnumber’d sounds that evening store;
The songs of birds—the whisp’ring of the leaves—
The voice of waters—the great bell that heaves
With solemn sound,—and thousand others more,
That distance of recognizance bereaves,
Make pleasing music, and not wild uproar.
Technical points worth attention here are the bold reversal of the regular accentual stress twice over in the first line, and the strained use of ‘store’ for ‘fill’ and ‘recognizance’ for ‘recognition.’ But the main interest of the sonnet is its comparison of the working of Keats’s miscellaneous poetic reading in his mind and memory with the effect of the confused but harmonious sounds of evening on the ear,—a frank and illuminating comment by himself on those stray echoes and reminiscences of the older poets which we catch now and again throughout his work. Such echoes and reminiscences are always permitted to genius, because genius cannot help turning whatever it takes into something new of its own: and Keats showed himself from the first one of those chartered borrowers who have the right to draw inspiration as they please, whether direct from nature or, in the phrase of Wordsworth,
From the great Nature that exists in works
Of mighty poets. (3)
Compare Shelley in the preface to Prometheus Unbound:—‘One great poet is a masterpiece of nature which another not only ought to study but must study.’
Most of the remaining sonnets can best be taken in groups, each group centering round a single theme or embodying a single mood or vein of feeling. One is what may be called the sex-chivalry group, including the sequence of three printed separately from the rest and beginning, ‘Woman, when I behold thee flippant, vain’; that beginning ‘Had I a man’s fair form’; that addressed to Georgiana Wylie, with its admirable opening, ‘Nymph of the downward smile, etc.,’ and its rather lame conclusion; to which, as more loosely connected with the group, and touched in some degree with Byronic suggestion, may be added ‘Happy is England, sweet her artless daughters.’ That excellent critic, the late F.T. Palgrave, had a singular admiration for the set of three which I have placed at the head of this group: to me its chief interest seems not poetical but personal, inasmuch as in it Keats already defines with self-knowledge the peculiar blend in his nature of ardent, idealizing boyish worship of woman and beauty with an acute critical sensitiveness to flaws of character defacing his ideal in actual women: a sensitiveness which grew with his growth and many a time afterwards put him ill at ease with his company and himself.
A large proportion of the remaining sonnets centre themselves more or less closely about the figure of Leigh Hunt. Two introduce him directly by name and had the effect of definitely marking Keats down, in the minds of reactionary critics, as a victim to be swooped upon in association with Hunt whenever occasion offered. The two are the early sonnet composed on the day of Hunt’s release from prison (February 5, 1815), and shown shyly as a first flight to Cowden Clarke immediately afterwards, and the dedicatory sonnet already quoted on the decay of the old pagan beauty, written almost exactly two years later. Intermediate in date between these two come two or three sonnets of May and June 1816 which, whether inspired directly or not by intercourse with Hunt, are certainly influenced by his writing, and express a townsman’s enjoyment of country walks in a spirit and vocabulary near akin to his:—‘To one who has been long in city pent’ (this opening comes with only the change of a word from Paradise Lost), ‘O Solitude, if I with thee must dwell,’ ‘As late I rambled in the happy fields.’ There is a memory of Wordsworth, and probably also of Epping Forest walks, in the cry to Solitude:—
Let me thy vigils keep
’Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
Next comes the autumn group definitely recording the happiness received by the young poet from intercourse with Hunt and his friends, from the society of his brothers in London, and from walks between the Hampstead cottage and in their city lodgings:—‘Give me a golden pen,’ ‘Small, busy flames play through the fresh-laid coals,’ ‘Keen, fitful gusts are whispering here and there’: to which may be added the sonnet On the Grasshopper and Cricket written in Hunt’s house and in friendly competition with him.
A second new friend, Haydon, has a pair of sonnets in the volume all to himself, including that well-known one which brackets him with Wordsworth and Leigh Hunt among great spirits destined to give the world another heart and other pulses. A few of the sonnets stand singly apart from the rest by their subject or occasion. Such is the sonnet in honour of the Polish hero Kosciusko; and such again is that addressed to George Keats from Margate, with its fine ocean quatrain (Keats was always well inspired in writing of the sea):—
The ocean with its vastness, its blue green,
Its ships, its rocks, its caves, its hopes, its fears,
Its voice mysterious, which whoso hears
Must think on what will be, and what has been.
Now that we are posthumously acquainted with the other sonnets written by Keats in these early years it is a little difficult to see on what principle he made his choice of the specimens to be published in this 1817 volume. Among those excluded, he may well have thought the early attempts on the peace of 1814, on Chatterton, and on Byron, too feeble, though he has included others scarcely better. That headed ‘As from the darkening gloom a silver dove’ he may have counted too conventionally pious; and that satirizing the starched gloom of church-goers too likely on the other hand to give offence. The second Haydon pair, on visiting the Elgin marbles, and the recently discovered pair on receiving a laurel crown from Leigh Hunt, (4) seem not to have been written (as that on the Floure and the Lefe certainly was not) until the book was passing, or had passed, the press. The last-named pair he would probably have had the good sense to omit in any case, as he has the sonnet celebrating a like laureation at the hands of a young lady at an earlier date. But why leave out ‘After dark vapours’ and ‘Who loves to peer,’ and above all why the admirable sonnet on Leander? The date of this was March 16, 1816, the occasion the gift by a lady of one of James Tassie’s coloured paste reproductions of an engraved gem of the subject. ‘Tassie’s gems’ were at this time immensely popular among lovers of Grecian taste, and were indeed delightful things, though his originals were too uncritically chosen and included but a small proportion of true antiques among a multitude of Renaissance and eighteenth-century imitations. Keats at one time proposed to make a collection of them for himself, and at another asked his young sister whether she would like a present of some. The sonnet opens with lines curiously recalling those invitations, or invocations, with which Dante begins some of his sonnets in the Vita Nuova. (5) The last three lines are an example, hardly to be bettered, of condensed expression and of imagination kindling into instantaneous tragic vitality a cold and meagre image presented to the eye.
Come hither all sweet maidens soberly,
Down-looking aye, and with a chasten’d light
Hid in the fringes of your eyelids white,
And meekly let your fair hands joined be,
As if so gentle that ye could not see,
Untouch’d, a victim of your beauty bright,
Sinking away to his young spirit’s night,—
Sinking bewilder’d ‘mid the dreary sea:
’Tis young Leander toiling to his death;
Nigh swooning, he doth purse his weary lips
For Hero’s cheek, and smiles against her smile.
O horrid dream! see how his body dips
Dead-heavy; arms and shoulders gleam awhile:
He’s gone: up bubbles all his amorous breath! (6)
More than half the volume is taken up with epistles and meditative pieces (Drayton would have called them Elegies and Ben Jonson Epigrams) in the regular five-stressed or decasyllabic couplet. The earliest of these is the epistle to Felton Mathew from which I have already given a quotation. The form of the verse in this case is modelled pretty closely on Browne’s Britannia’s Pastorals. Keats, as has been said, was already familiar with the work of this amiable Spenserian allegorist, so thin and tedious in the allegorical part of his work proper, in romantic invention so poorly inspired, so admirable, genuine, and vivacious on the other hand in his scenes and similitudes from real west-country life and in notes of patriotism both local and national. By the following motto chosen from Browne’s work Keats seems to put the group of Epistles in his volume under that poet’s particular patronage:—
Among the rest a shepheard (though but young
Yet hartned to his pipe) with all the skill
His few yeeres could, began to fit his quill.
But before coming to questions of the special influences which successively shaped Keats’s aims both as to style and versification in poems of this form, I shall ask the reader to pause with me awhile and get freshly and familiarly into his ear and mind, what to special students is well known but to others only vaguely, the story of the chief phases which this most characteristic of English measures had gone through until the time when Keats tried to handle it in a spirit more or less revolutionary. Some of the examples I shall quote by way of illustration are passages which we know to have been specially familiar to Keats and to which we shall have occasion to recur. Let us first consider Chaucer’s use, as illustrated in a part of the prayer of Emilia to Diana in the Knightes Tale:—
O chastë goddesse of the wodës grene,
To whom bothe hevene and erthe and see is sene,
Quene of the regne of Pluto derk and lowe,
Goddesse of maydens, that myn herte hast knowe
Ful many a yeer, and woost what I desire,
As keep me fro thy vengeance and thyn ire,
That Attheon aboughtë cruelly.
Chastë goddessë, wel wostow that I
Desire to been a mayden al my lyf,
Ne never wol I be no love ne wyf.
I am, thou woost, yet of thy companye,
A mayde, and love hunting and venerye,
And for to walken in the wodës wilde,
And noght to been a wyf, and be with childe.
Noght wol I knowë companye of man.
Now help me, lady, sith ye may and can,
For tho thre formës that thou hast in thee.
And Palamon, that hath swich love to me,
And eek Arcite, that loveth me so sore,
This grace I preyë thee with-outë more,
As sendë love and pees bitwixte hem two;
And fro me turne awey hir hertës so,
That al hir hotë love, and hir desyr,
And al hir bisy torment, and hir fyr
Be queynt, or turnëd in another place;
And if so be thou wolt not do me grace,
Or if my destinee be shapen so,
That I shal nedës have oon of hem two,
As sende me him that most desireth me.
The rime-syllables with which Chaucer ends his lines are as a rule strong and followed by a pause, or at least by the grammatical possibility of a pause, though there are exceptions like the division of ‘I | desire.’ The general effect of the metre is that of a succession of separate couplets, though their separation is often slight and the sentence is allowed to run on with little break through several couplets divided from each other by no break of more than a comma. When a full stop comes and ends the sentence, it is hardly ever allowed to break a line by falling at any point except the end. On the other hand it is as often as not used to divide the couplet by falling at the end not of the second but of the first line, so that the ear has to wait a moment in expectancy until the second, beginning a new sentence, catches up the rime of the first like an echo. Other, slighter pauses fall quite variably where they will, and there is no regular breathing pause or caesura dividing the line after the second or third stress.
When the measure was revived by the Elizabethans two conflicting tendencies began to appear in its treatment. One was to end each line with a full and strong rime-syllable, noun or verb or emphatic adjective, and to let each couplet consist of a single sentence, or at any rate a single clause of a sentence, so as to be both grammatically and rhythmically almost independent of the next. Under this, which is called the closed or stopped couplet system, the rime-pattern and the sense or sentence-pattern, which together compose the formal elements in all rimed verse, are made strictly to coincide, and within the limits of a couplet no full break of the sense is allowed. Rhetorical and epigrammatical point and vigour are the special virtues of this system: its weaknesses are monotony of beat and lack of freedom and variety in sentence structure. The other and opposite tendency is to suffer the sentence or period to develop itself freely, almost as in prose, running over as it will from one couplet into another, and coming to a full pause at any point in the line; and at the same time to let any syllable whatever, down to the lightest of prepositions or auxiliaries, serve at need as a rime-syllable. Under this system the sense and consequent sentence-pattern winds in and out of the rime-pattern variously and deviously, the rime-echo striking upon the ear now with emphasis, now lightly and fugitively, and being sometimes held up to follow a full pause and sometimes hurried on with the merest suggestion or insinuation of a possible pause, or with none at all. The virtues of this system are variety and freedom of movement; its special dangers are invertebrateness and a tendency to straggle and wind itself 96 free of all real observance of rime-effect or metrical law.
Most of the Elizabethans used both systems interchangeably, now a string of closed couplets, and now a flowing period carried through a succession of couplets overrunning into one another. Spenser in Mother Hubbard’s Tale and Marlowe in Hero and Leander were among the earliest and best revivers of the measure, and both inclined to the closed couplet system, Spenser the more strictly of the two, as the satiric and epigrammatic nature of his theme might naturally dictate. Let us take a well known passage from Marlowe:—
It lies not in our power to love or hate,
For will in us is over-ruled by fate.
When two are stript, long ere the course begin,
We wish that one should lose, the other win;
And one especially do we affect
Of two gold ingots, like in each respect:
The reason no man knows; let it suffice,
What we behold is censured by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight:
Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?
He kneeled; but unto her devoutly prayed:
Chaste Hero to herself thus softly said,
‘Were I the saint he worships, I would hear him;’
And, as she spake those words, came somewhat near him.
He started up; she blushed as one ashamed;
Wherewith Leander much more was inflamed.
He touched her hand; in touching it she trembled:
Love deeply grounded, hardly is dissembled.
These lovers parlèd by the touch of hands:
True love is mute, and oft amazèd stands.
Thus while dumb signs their yielding hearts entangled,
The air with sparks of living fire was spangled;
And Night, deep-drenched in misty Acheron,
Heaved up her head, and half the world upon
Breathed darkness forth (dark night is Cupid’s day).
The first ten lines, conveying moral saws or maxims, furnish almost a complete example of the closed couplet system, and not only of that, but of the division of single lines by a pause or caesura after the second or third stress. When the narrative begins, the verse moves still mainly in detached couplets (partly because a line of moral reflection is now and again paired with a line of narrative), but with a growing inclination to prolong the sentence and vary the rhythm, and with an abundant use, in the rimes, of the double or feminine ending, for which Chaucer affords precedent enough.
Drayton, a poet in whom Keats was well read, is commonly quoted as one who yielded habitually to the attraction of the closed couplet; and indeed he will often run on through page on page of twinned verses, or ‘gemells’ as he calls them, like these from the imaginary Epistle from Eleanor Cobham to Duke Humphrey:—
Why, if thou wilt, I will myself deny,
Nay, I’ll affirm and swear, I am not I:
Or if in that thy shame thou dost perceive,
Lo, for thy dear sake, I my name will leave.
And yet, methinks, amaz’d thou shouldst not stand,
Nor seem so much appallèd at my hand;
For my misfortunes have inur’d thine eye
(Long before this) to sights of misery.
No, no, read on, ’tis I, the very same,
All thou canst read, is but to read my shame.
Be not dismay’d, nor let my name affright;
The worst it can, is but t’ offend thy sight;
It cannot wound, nor do thee deadly harm,
It is no dreadful spell, no magic charm.
But Drayton is also very capable of the full-flowing period and the loose over-run of couplet into couplet, as witness the following from one of his epistles:—
O God, though Virtue mightily do grieve
For all this world, yet will I not believe
But that she’s fair and lovely and that she
So to the period of the world will be;
Else had she been forsaken (sure) of all,
For that so many sundry mischiefs fall
Upon her daily, and so many take
Up arms against her, as it well might make
Her to forsake her nature, and behind
To leave no step for future time behind,
As she had never been, for he that now
Can do her most disgrace, him they allow
The time’s chief Champion—.
Turning to Keats’s next favourite among the old poets, William Browne of Tavistock, here is a passage from Britannia’s Pastorals which we know to have stuck in his memory, and which illustrates the prevailing tendency of the metre in Browne’s hands to run in a succession of closed, but not too tightly closed, couplets, and to abound in double or feminine rime-endings which make a variation in the beat:—
And as a lovely maiden, pure and chaste,
With naked iv’ry neck, and gown unlaced,
Within her chamber, when the day is fled,
Makes poor her garments to enrich her bed:
First, put she off her lily-silken gown,
That shrieks for sorrow as she lays it down;
And with her arms graceth a waistcoat fine,
Embracing her as it would ne’er untwine.
Her flaxen hair, ensnaring all beholders,
She next permits to wave about her shoulders,
And though she cast it back, the silken slips
Still forward steal and hang upon her lips:
Whereat she sweetly angry, with her laces
Binds up the wanton locks in curious traces,
Whilst (twisting with her joints) each hair long lingers,
As loth to be enchain’d but with her fingers.
Then on her head a dressing like a crown;
Her breasts all bare, her kirtle slipping down,
And all things off (which rightly ever be
Call’d the foul-fair marks of our misery)
Except her last, which enviously doth seize her,
Lest any eye partake with it in pleasure,
Prepares for sweetest rest, while sylvans greet her,
And longingly the down bed swells to meet her.
Chapman, a poet naturally rugged of mind and speech and moreover hampered by having to translate, takes much greater liberties, constantly breaking up single lines with a full stop in the middle and riming on syllables too light or too grammatically dependent on the word next following to allow naturally any stress of after-pause, however slight; as thus in the sixth Odyssey:—
These, here arriv’d, the mules uncoach’d, and drave
Up to the gulfy river’s shore, that gave
Sweet grass to them. The maids from coach then took
Their clothes, and steep’d them in the sable brook;
Then put them into springs, and trod them clean
With cleanly feet; adventuring wagers then,
Who should have soonest and most cleanly done.
When having throughly cleans’d, they spread them on
The flood’s shore, all in order. And then, where
The waves the pebbles wash’d, and ground was clear,
They bath’d themselves, and all with glittering oil
Smooth’d their white skins; refreshing then their toil
With pleasant dinner, by the river’s side;
Yet still watch’d when the sun their clothes had dried.
Till which time, having dined, Nausicaa
With other virgins did at stool-ball play,
Their shoulder-reaching head-tires laying by.
The other classical translation of the time with which Keats was most familiar was that of the Metamorphoses of Ovid by the traveller and colonial administrator George Sandys. As a rule Sandys prefers the regular beat of the self-contained couplet, but now and again he too breaks it uncompromisingly: for instance,—
Forbear yourselves, O Mortals, to pollute
With wicked food: fields smile with corn, ripe fruit
Weighs down their boughs; plump grapes their vines attire;
There are sweet herbs, and savory roots, which fire
May mollify, milk, honey redolent
With flowers of thyme, thy palate to content.
The prodigal earth abounds with gentle food;
Affording banquets without death or blood.
Brute beasts with flesh their ravenous hunger cloy:
And yet not all; in pastures horses joy:
So flocks and herds. But those whom Nature hath
Endued with cruelty, and savage wrath
(Wolves, bears, Armenian tigers, Lions) in
Hot blood delight. How horrible a sin,
That entrails bleeding entrails should entomb!
That greedy flesh, by flesh should fat become!
While by one creature’s death another lives!
Contemporary masters of elegiac and epistolary verse often deal with the metre more harshly and arbitrarily still. Thus Donne, the great Dean of St Paul’s, though capable of riming with fine sonority and richness, chooses sometimes to write as though in sheer defiance of the obvious framework offered by the couplet system; and the same refusal to stop the sense with the couplet, the same persistent slurring of the rime, the same broken and jerking movement, are plentifully to be matched from the epistles of Ben Jonson. In later and weaker hands this method of letting the sentence march or jolt upon its way in almost complete independence of the rime developed into a fatal disease and decay of the metre, analogous to the disease which at the same time was overtaking and corrupting dramatic blank verse. A signal instance, to which we shall have to return, is the Pharonnida of William Chamberlayne, (1659) a narrative poem not lacking momentary gleams of intellect and imagination, and by some insatiate students, including Southey and Professor Saintsbury, admired and praised in spite of its (to one reader at least) intolerable tedium and wretched stumbling, shuffling verse, which rimes indeed to the eye but to the ear is mere mockery and vexation. For example:—
Some time in silent sorrow spent, at length
The fair Pharonnida recovers strength,
Though sighs each accent interrupted, to
Return this answer:—‘Wilt, oh! wilt thou do
Our infant love such injury—to leave
It ere full grown? When shall my soul receive
A comfortable smile to cherish it,
When thou art gone? They’re but dull joys that sit
Enthroned in fruitless wishes; yet I could
Part, with a less expense of sorrow, would
Our rigid fortune only be content
With absence; but a greater punishment
Conspires against us—Danger must attend
Each step thou tread’st from hence; and shall I spend
Those hours in mirth, each of whose minutes lay
Wait for thy life? When Fame proclaims the day
Wherein your battles join, how will my fear
With doubtful pulses beat, until I hear
Whom victory adorns! Or shall I rest
Here without trembling, when, lodged in thy breast,
My heart’s exposed to every danger that
Assails thy valour, and is wounded at
Each stroke that lights on thee—which absent I,
Prompted by fear, to myriads multiply.’
The tendency which culminated in this kind of verse was met by a counteracting tendency in the majority of poets to insist on the regular emphatic rime-beat, and to establish the rime-unit—that is the separate couplet—as the completely dominant element in the measure, the ‘heroic’ measure as it had come to be called. The rule is nowhere so dogmatically laid down as by Sir John Beaumont, the elder brother of the dramatist, in an address to King James I:—
In every language now in Europe spoke
By nations which the Roman Empire broke,
The relish of the Muse consists in rime:
One verse must meet another like a chime.
Our Saxon shortness hath peculiar grace
In choice of words fit for the ending place,
Which leave impression in the mind as well
As closing sounds of some delightful bell.
Milton at nineteen, in a passage of his college Vacation Exercise, familiar to Keats and for every reason interesting to read in connexion with the poems expressing Keats’s early aspirations, showed how the metre could still be handled nobly in the mixed Elizabethan manner:—
Hail native Language, that by sinews weak
Didst move my first endeavouring tongue to speak,
I have some naked thoughts that rove about
And loudly knock to have their passage out;
And wearie of their place do only stay
Till thou hast deck’t them in thy best array;
That so they may without suspect or fears
Fly swiftly to this fair Assembly’s ears;
Yet I had rather if I were to chuse,
Thy service in some graver subject use,
Such as may make thee search thy coffers round,
Before thou cloath my fancy in fit sound:
Such where the deep transported mind may soare
Above the wheeling poles, and at Heav’ns dore
Look in, and see each blissful Deitie
How he before the thunderous throne doth lie,
Listening to what unshorn Apollo sings
To th’ touch of golden wires, while Hebe brings
Immortal Nectar to her Kingly Sire:
Then passing through the Spheres of watchful fire,
And mistie Regions of wide air next under,
And hills of Snow and lofts of piled Thunder,
May tell at length how green-ey’d Neptune raves,
In Heav’ns defiance mustering all his waves;
Then sing of secret things that came to pass
When Beldam Nature in her cradle was;
And last of Kings and Queens and Hero’s old,
Such as the wise Demodocus once told
In solemn Songs at King Alcinous feast,
While sad Ulisses soul and all the rest
Are held with his melodious harmonie
In willing chains and sweet captivitie.
But the strictly closed system advocated by Sir John Beaumont prevailed in the main, and by the days of the Commonwealth and Restoration was with some exceptions generally established. Some poets were enabled by natural fineness of ear and dignity of soul to make it yield fine rich and rolling modulations: none more so than Andrew Marvell, as for instance in his noble poem on the death of Cromwell. The name especially associated in contemporary and subsequent criticism with the attainment of the admired quality of ‘smoothness’ (another name for clipped and even monotony of rime and rhythm) in this metre is Waller, the famous parliamentary and poetical turncoat who could adulate with equal unction first the Lord Protector and then the restored Charles. By this time, however, every rimer could play the tune, and thanks to the controlling and suggesting power of the metre itself, could turn out couplets with the true metallic and epigrammatic ring: few better than Katherine Philips (‘the matchless Orinda’), who was a stickler for the strictest form of the couplet and wished even to banish all double endings. Take this from her elegy on the death of Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia (1662):—
Although the most do with officious heat
Only adore the living and the great,
Yet this Queen’s merits Fame so far hath spread,
That she rules still, though dispossest and dead.
For losing one, two other Crowns remained;
Over all hearts and her own griefs she reigned.
Two Thrones so splendid as to none are less
But to that third which she does now possess.
Her heart and birth Fortune as well did know,
That seeking her own fame in such a foe,
She drest the spacious theatre for the fight:
And the admiring World call’d to the sight:
An army then of mighty sorrows brought,
Who all against this single virtue fought;
And sometimes stratagems, and sometimes blows,
To her heroic soul they did oppose:
But at her feet their vain attempts did fall,
And she discovered and subdu’d them all.
Cowley in his long ‘heroic’ poem The Davideis admits the occasional Alexandrine or twelve-syllable line as a variation on the monotony of the rhythm. Dryden, with his incomparably sounder and stronger literary sense, saw the need for a richer variation yet, and obtained it by the free use both of triple rimes and of Alexandrines: often getting fine effects of sweeping sonority, although by means which the reader cannot but feel to be arbitrary, imported into the form because its monotony calls for relief rather than intrinsic and natural to it. Chaucer’s prayer, above quoted, of Emilia to Diana runs thus in Dryden’s ‘translation’:—
O Goddess, Haunter of the Woodland Green,
To whom both Heav’n and Earth and Seas are seen;
Queen of the nether Skies, where half the Year
Thy Silver Beams descend, and light the gloomy Sphere;
Goddess of Maids, and conscious of our Hearts,
So keep me from the Vengeance of thy Darts,
Which Niobe’s devoted Issue felt,
When hissing through the Skies the feather’d Deaths were dealt:
As I desire to live a Virgin-life,
Nor know the Name of Mother or of Wife.
Thy Votress from my tender Years I am,
And love, like thee, the Woods and Sylvan Game.
Like Death, thou know’st, I loath the Nuptial State,
And Man, the Tyrant of our Sex, I hate,
A lowly Servant, but a lofty Mate.
Where Love is Duty on the Female Side,
On theirs mere sensual Gust, and sought with surly Pride.
Now by thy triple Shape, as thou art seen
In Heav’n, Earth, Hell, and ev’ry where a Queen,
Grant this my first Desire; let Discord, cease,
And make betwixt the Rivals lasting Peace:
Quench their hot Fire, or far from me remove
The Flame, and turn it on some other Love.
Or if my frowning Stars have so decreed,
That one must be rejected, one succeed,
Make him my Lord, within whose faithful Breast
Is fix’d my Image, and who loves me best.
In serious work Dryden avoided double endings almost entirely, reserving them for playful and colloquial use in stage prologues, epilogues, and the like, thus:—
I come, kind Gentlemen, strange news to tell ye;
I am the Ghost of poor departed Nelly.
Sweet Ladies, be not frighted; I’ll be civil;
I’m what I was, a little harmless Devil.
For, after death, we Sprights have just such Natures,
We had, for all the World, when human Creatures.
In the following generation Pope discarded, with the rarest exceptions, all these variations upon the metre and wrought up successions of separate couplets, each containing a single sentence or clause of a sentence complete, and each line having its breathing-pause or caesura almost exactly in the same place, to a pitch of polished and glittering elegance, of striking, instantaneous effect both upon ear and mind, which completely dazzled and subjugated not only his contemporaries but three full generations of rimers and readers after them. Everyone knows the tune; it is the same whether applied to purposes of pastoral sentiment or rhetorical passion or playful fancy, of Homeric translation or Horatian satire, of witty and plausible moral and critical reflection or of savage personal lampoon and invective. Let the reader turn in memory from Ariel’s account of the duties of his subordinate elves and fays:—
Some in the fields of purest ether play,
And bask and whiten in the blaze of day:
Some guide the course of wandering orbs on high,
Or roll the planets through the boundless sky:
Some, less refin’d, beneath the moon’s pale light
Pursue the stars that shoot athwart the night,
Or suck the mists in grosser air below,
Or dip their pinions in the painted bow,
Or brew fierce tempests on the wintry main,
Or o’er the glebe distil the kindly rain.
Others, on earth, o’er human race preside,
Watch all their ways, and all their actions guide,—
let the reader turn in memory from this to the familiarly known lines in which Pope congratulates himself
That not in fancy’s maze he wandered long,
But stoop’d to truth, and moraliz’d his song;
That not for fame, but virtue’s better end,
He stood the furious foe, the timid friend,
The damning critic, half approving wit,
The coxcomb hit, or fearing to be hit;
Laughed at the loss of friends he never had,
The dull, the proud, the wicked, and the mad;
The distant threats of vengeance on his head,
The blow unfelt, the tear he never shed;
The tale revived, the lie so oft o’erthrown,
The imputed trash, and dulness not his own,—
and again from this to his castigation of the unhappy Bayes:—
Swearing and supperless the hero sate,
Blasphem’d his gods, the dice, and damn’d his fate;
Then gnaw’d his pen, then dash’d it on the ground,
Sinking from thought to thought, a vast profound!
Plung’d for his sense, but found no bottom there,
Yet wrote and flounder’d on in mere despair.
Round him much embryo, much abortion lay,
Much future ode, and abdicated play;
Nonsense precipitate, like running lead,
That slipped through cracks and zigzags of the head.
The author thus brilliantly and evenly accomplished in one metre and so many styles ruled as a sovereign long after his death, his works being published in nearly thirty editions before the end of the century; and the measure as thus fixed and polished by him became for a full hundred years the settled norm and standard for English ‘heroic’ verse, the length and structure of periods, sentences and clauses having to be rigidly clipped to fit it. In this respect no change of practice came till after the whole spirit of English poetry had been changed. Almost from Pope’s own day the leaven destined to produce what came afterwards to be called the romantic revolution was working, in the main unconsciously, in men’s minds. Of conscious rebels or pioneers, two of the chief were that admirable, ridiculous pair of clerical brothers Joseph and Thomas Warton, Joseph long headmaster of Winchester, Thomas professor of poetry at Oxford and later poet laureate. Joseph Warton made at twenty-four, within two years of Pope’s death, a formal protest against the reign of the polished and urbane moral essay in verse, and at all times stoutly maintained ‘Invention and Imagination’ to be the chief qualities of a poet; illustrating his views by what he called odes, to us sadly uninspired, of his own composition. His younger brother Thomas, with his passion for Gothic architecture, his masterly editing of Spenser, and his profound labours on the origin and history of our native English poetry, carried within him, for all his grotesque personality, many of the germs of the spirit that was to animate the coming age. As the century advanced, other signs and portents of what was to come were Chatterton’s audaciously brilliant blunder of the Rowley forgeries, with the interest which it excited, the profound impression created by the pseudo-Ossian of Macpherson, and the enthusiastic reception of Percy’s Reliques. But current critical taste did not recognize the meaning of these signs, and tacitly treated the breach between our older and newer literatures as complete. Admitting the older as a worthy and interesting subject of study and welcoming the labour of scholars—even those of pretended scholars—in collecting and publishing its remains or what purported to be such, criticism none the less expected and demanded of contemporary production that it should conform as a matter of course to the standards established since language and style had been ‘polished’ and reduced to ‘correctness’ by Dryden and Pope. Thomas Warton, wishing to celebrate in verse the glories of the Gothic architecture of Oxford, finds himself constrained to do so strictly in the dominant style and measure. His brother, the protesting Joseph, actually has to enrol himself among Pope’s editors, and when for once he uses the heroic couplet and lets his fancy play upon the sight of a butterfly in Hackwood Park, must do so, he too, in this thoroughly Popeian wise:—
Fair child of Sun and Summer, we behold
With eager eyes thy wings bedropp’d with gold;
The purple spots that o’er thy mantle spread,
The sapphire’s lively blue, the ruby’s red,
Ten thousand various blended tints surprise,
Beyond the rainbow’s hues or peacock’s eyes:
Not Judah’s king in eastern pomp array’d,
Whose charms allur’d from far the Sheban maid,
High on his glitt’ring throne, like you could shine
(Nature’s completest miniature divine):
For thee the rose her balmy buds renews,
And silver lillies fill their cups with dews;
Flora for thee the laughing fields perfumes,
For thee Pomona sheds her choicest blooms.
William Blake, in his Poetical Sketches of 1784, poured scorn on the still reigning fashion for ‘tinkling rhymes and elegances terse’, and himself struck wonderful lyric notes in the vein of our older poetry: but nobody read or marked Blake: he was not for his own age but for posterity. Even those of the eighteenth century poets who in the main avoided the heroic couplet, and took refuge, like Thomson, in the Spenserian stanza or Miltonic blank verse, or confined themselves to lyric or elegiac work like Gray,—even they continued to be hampered by a strict conventional and artificial code of poetic style and diction. The first full and effective note of emancipation, of poetical revolution and expansion, in England was that struck by Coleridge and Wordsworth with the publication and defence of their Lyrical Ballads (1798, 1800). Both these young masters had written in the established mould in their quite earliest work, but afterwards disused it almost entirely (The Happy Warrior is of course a conspicuous exception); while their contemporary Walter Scott avoided it from the first.
The new poetry, whether cast in forms derived from or coloured by the old ballad literature of the country, or helping itself from the simplicities and directnesses of common every-day speech, or going back to Miltonic and pre-Miltonic tradition, fought its way to recognition now slowly, as in the case of Wordsworth, in whose style all these three elements play their part, now rapidly in the face of all opposition, as in the case of Scott with his dashing Border lays. But the heroic couplet on the Queen Anne model still held the field as the reigning and official form of verse; and among the most admired poets of Keats’s day, Rogers, Campbell, and Crabbe in the older generation, each in his own manner, still kept sounding the old instrument essentially to the old tune, with Byron in the younger following, in The Corsair and Lara, at a pace more rapid and helter-skelter but with a beat even more monotonous and hammering than any of theirs. We have seen how Leigh Hunt declared his intention to try a reform of the measure, and how he carried out his promise in Rimini. He did little more than revive Dryden’s expedients of the occasional triplet and Alexandrine, with a sprinkling of Elizabethan double-endings; failing withal completely to catch any touch either of the imaginative passion of the Elizabethans or of Dryden’s fine virile energy and worldly good-breeding.
Rimini was not yet published, nor had Keats yet met its author, when Keats wrote his Epistle to Felton Mathew in November 1815. If, as is the case, his strain of social ease and sprightliness jars on us a little in the same manner as Hunt’s, it is that there was really as he himself said on another occasion, something in common between them. At the same time it should be remembered that some of Keats’s most Huntian-seeming rimes and phrases contain really an echo of the older masters. (7) That William Browne was his earliest model in the handling of the metre will, I think, be apparent to any reader who will put the passage from Britannia’s Pastorals above quoted (p. 98), with its easily flowing couplets varied at intervals by whole clusters or bunches of double endings, alongside of the following from Keats’s first Epistle:—
Too partial friend! fain would I follow thee
Past each horizon of fine poesy;
Fain would I echo back each pleasant note
As o’er Sicilian seas, clear anthems float
‘Mong the light skimming gondolas far parted,
Just when the sun his farewell beam has darted:
But ’tis impossible; far different cares
Beckon me sternly from soft ‘Lydian airs,’
And hold my faculties so long in thrall,
That I am oft in doubt whether at all
I shall again see Phoebus in the morning:
Or flush’d Aurora in the roseate dawning!
Or a white Naiad in a rippling stream;
Or a rapt seraph in a moonlight beam;
Or again witness what with thee I’ve seen,
The dew by fairy feet swept from the green,
After a night of some quaint jubilee
Which every elf and fay had come to see:
When bright processions took their airy march
Beneath the curved moon’s triumphal arch.
But might I now each passing moment give
To the coy muse, with me she would not live
In this dark city, nor would condescend
‘Mid contradictions her delights to lend.
Should e’er the fine-ey’d maid to me be kind,
Ah! surely it must be whene’er I find
Some flowery spot, sequester’d, wild, romantic,
That often must have seen a poet frantic;
Where oaks, that erst the Druid knew, are growing,
And flowers, the glory of one day, are blowing;
Where the dark-leav’d laburnum’s drooping clusters
Reflect athwart the stream their yellow lustres,
And intertwin’d the cassia’s arms unite,
With its own drooping buds, but very white.
This is artless enough as writing, but obviously sincere, and interesting as showing how early and instinctively both Greek and mediæval mythology had become to Keats symbols and incarnations, as living as in the days of their first creation, of the charm and power of nature. The piece ends with a queer Ovidian fancy about his friend, to the effect that he, Mathew, had once been a ‘flowret blooming wild’ beside the springs of poetry, and that Diana had plucked him and thrown him into the stream as an offering to her brother Apollo, who had turned him into a goldfinch, from which he 111 was metamorphosed into a black-eyed swan fed by Naiads.
The next experiments in this measure, the fragment of Calidore with its Induction, date from a few months later, after the publication of Rimini, and express the longing of the young aspirant to follow the example of Hunt, the loved Libertas, and tell, he too, a tale of chivalry. But the longing is seconded by scarce a touch of inspiration. The Gothic and nature descriptions are quite cheap and external, the figures of knights and ladies quite conventional, the whole thing a matter of plumes and palfreys and lances, shallow graces of costume and sentiment, much more recalling Stothard’s sugared illustrations to Spenser than the spirit of Spenser himself, whose patronage Keats timorously invokes. He at the same time entreats Hunt to intercede with Spenser on his behalf: and in the result it seems as though Hunt had stepped bodily in between them. In the handling of the metre, indeed, there is nothing of Hunt’s diluted Drydenism: there is the same direct though timid following of Elizabethan precedents as before, varied by an occasional echo of Lycidas in the use of the short six-syllable line:—
Anon he leaps along the oaken floors
Of halls and corridors.
But in the style and sentiment we trace Leigh Hunt, or those elements in Keats which were naturally akin to him, at every turn. We read, for instance, of trees that lean
So elegantly o’er the waters brim
And show their blossoms trim:
The lamps that from the high-roof’d hall were pendent
And gave the steel a shining quite transcendent.
A few months later, on his August and September holiday at Margate, Keats resumes the measure again, in two familiar epistles, one to his brother George, the other to Cowden Clarke. To his brother he expresses frankly, and in places felicitously, the moods and aspirations of a youth passionately and justly conscious of the working of the poetic impulse in him, but not less justly dissatisfied with the present fruits of such impulse, and wondering whether any worth gathering will ever come to ripeness. He tells us of hours when all in vain he gazes at the play of sheet lightning or pries among the stars ‘to strive to think divinely,’ and of other hours when the doors of the clouds break open and show him visions of the pawing of white horses, the flashing of festal wine cups in halls of gold, and supernatural colours of dimly seen flowers. In such moods, he asks concerning an imagined poet:—
Should he upon an evening ramble fare
With forehead to the soothing breezes bare,
Would he naught see but the dark silent blue
With all its diamonds trembling through and through?
Or the coy moon, when in the waviness
Of whitest clouds she does her beauty dress,
And staidly paces higher up, and higher,
Like a sweet nun in holy-day attire?
Ah, yes! much more would start into his sight—
The revelries, and mysteries of night:
And should I ever see them, I will tell you
Such tales as needs must with amazement spell you.
But richer even than these privileges of the poet in his illuminated moments is the reward which he may look for from posterity. In a long passage, deeply pathetic considering the after-event, Keats imagines exultingly what must be a poet’s deathbed feelings when he foresees how his name and work will be cherished in after times by men and women of all sorts and conditions—warrior, statesman, and philosopher, village May-queen and nursing mother (the best and most of the verses are those which picture the May-queen taking his book from her bosom to read to a thrilled circle on the village green). He might be happier, he admits, could he stifle all these ambitions. Yet there are moments when he already tastes the true delights of poetry; and at any rate he can take pleasure in the thought that his brother will like what he writes; and so he is content to close with an attempt at a quiet description of the Thanet scenery and surroundings whence he writes.
In addressing Cowden Clarke Keats begins with an odd image, likening the way in which poetic inspiration eludes him to the slipping away of drops of water which a swan vainly tries to collect in the hollows of his plumage. He would have written sooner, he tells his correspondent, but had nothing worthy to submit to one so familiar with the whole range of poetry and recently, moreover, privileged to walk and talk with Leigh Hunt,—
One, who, of late, had ta’en sweet forest walks
With him who elegantly chats, and talks—
The wrong’d Libertas,—who has told you stories
Of laurel chaplets, and Apollo’s glories;
Of troops chivalrous prancing through a city,
And tearful ladies made for love, and pity.
(The allusion in the last three lines is of course to The Feast of the Poets and Rimini. The passage seems to make it certain that whatever intercourse Keats himself may up to this time have had with Hunt was slight.) Even now, he goes on, he would not show Clarke his verses but that he takes courage from their old friendship and from his sense of owing to it all he knows of poetry. Recurring to the pleasantness of his present surroundings, he says that they have inspired him to attempt the verses he is now writing for his friend, which would have been better only that they have been too long parted. Then follow the lines quoted farther back (p. 37) in affectionate remembrance of old Enfield and Edmonton days.
In these early attempts Keats again ventures some way, but not yet far, in the direction of breaking the fetters of the regular couplet. He runs his sentences freely enough through a succession of lines, but nine times out of ten with some kind of pause as well as emphasis on the rime-word. He deals freely in double endings, and occasionally, but not often (oftenest in the epistle to George) breaks the run of a line with a full stop in or near the middle. He is in like manner timid and sparing as yet in the use, to which a little later he was to give rein so fully, of Elizabethan word-forms, or forms modelled for himself on Elizabethan usage.
Somewhat more free and adventurous alike in metre and in diction are the two poems, Sleep and Poetry and ‘I stood tip-toe,’ which Keats wrote after he came back to London in the autumn. These are the things which, together with two or three of the sonnets, give its real distinction and high promise to the volume. Both in substance and intention they are preludes merely, but preludes of genius, and, although marked by many immaturities, as interesting and attractive perhaps as anything which has ever been written by a poet of the same age about his art and his aspirations. In them the ardent novice communes intently with himself on his own hopes and ambitions. Possessed by the thrilling sense that everything in earth and air is full, as it were, of poetry in solution, he has as yet no clearness as to the forms and modes in which these suspended elements will crystallize for him. In Sleep and Poetry he tries to get into shape his conceptions of the end and aim of poetical endeavour, conjures up the difficulties of his task, counts over the new achievement and growing promise of the time in which he lives, and gives thanks for the encouragement by which he has been personally sustained. In ‘I stood tip-toe’ he runs over the stock of nature-images which are his own private and peculiar delight, traces in various phases and aspects of nature a symbolic affinity, or spiritual identity, with various forms and kinds of poetry; tells how such a strain of verse will call up such and such a range of nature images, and conversely how this or that group of outdoor delights will inspire this or that mood of poetic invention; and finally goes on to speculate on the moods which first inspired some of the Grecian tales he loves best, and above all the tale of Endymion and Cynthia, the beneficent wonders of whose bridal night he hopes himself one day to retell.
Sleep and Poetry is printed at the end of the volume, ‘I stood tip-toe’ at the beginning. It is hard to tell which of the two pieces was written first. (8) Sleep and Poetry is the longer and more important, and has more the air of having been composed, so to speak, all of a piece. We know that ‘I stood tip-toe’ was not finished until the end of December 1816. Sleep and Poetry cannot well have been written later, seeing that the book was published in the first days of the following March, and must therefore have gone to press early in the new year. What seems likeliest is that Sleep and Poetry was written without break during the first freshness of Keats’s autumn intimacy at the Hampstead cottage; while ‘I stood tip-toe’ may have been begun in the summer and resumed at intervals until the year’s end. I shall take Sleep and Poetry first and let ‘I stood tip-toe’ come after, as being the direct and express prelude to the great experiment, Endymion, which was to follow.
The scheme of Sleep and Poetry is to some extent that of The Floure and the Lefe, the pseudo-Chaucerian poem which, as we have seen, had so strongly caught Keats’s fancy. Keats takes for his motto lines from that poem telling of a night wakeful but none the less cheerful, and avers that his own poem was the result of just such another night. An opening invocation sets the blessings of sleep above a number of other delightful things which it gives him joy to think of, and recounts the activities of Sleep personified,—‘Silent entangler of a beauty’s tresses,’ etc.,—in lines charming and essentially characteristic, for it is the way of his imagination to be continually discovering active and dynamic qualities in things and to let their passive and inert properties be. But far higher and more precious than the blessings of sleep are those of something else which he will not name:—
What is it? And to what shall I compare it?
It has a glory, and nought else can share it:
The thought thereof is awful, sweet, and holy,
Chasing away all worldliness and folly;
Coming sometimes like fearful claps of thunder,
Or the low rumblings earth’s regions under;
And sometimes like a gentle whispering
Of all the secrets of some wond’rous thing
That breathes about us in the vacant air;
So that we look around with prying stare,
Perhaps to see shapes of light, aerial limning,
And catch soft floatings from a faint-heard hymning;
To see the laurel wreath, on high suspended.
That is to crown our name when life is ended.
Sometimes it gives a glory to the voice,
And from the heart up-springs, rejoice! rejoice!
Sounds which will reach the Framer of all things,
And die away in ardent mutterings.
Every enlightened spirit will guess, he implies, that this thing is poetry, and to Poetry personified he addresses his next invocation, declaring that if he can endure the overwhelming favour of her acceptance he will be admitted to ‘the fair visions of all places’ and will learn to reveal in verse the hidden beauty and meanings of things, in an ascending scale from the playing of nymphs in woods and fountains to ‘the events of this wide world,’ which it will be given him to seize ‘like a strong giant.’
At this point a warning voice within him reminds him sadly of the shortness and fragility of life, to which an answering inward voice of gay courage and hope replies. Keats could only think in images, and almost invariably in images of life and action: those here conveying the warning and its reply are alike felicitous:—
Stop and consider! life is but a day;
A fragile dew-drop on its perilous way
From a tree’s summit; a poor Indian’s sleep
While his boat hastens to the monstrous steep
Of Montmorenci. Why so sad a moan?
Life is the rose’s hope while yet unblown;
The reading of an ever-changing tale;
The light uplifting of a maiden’s veil;
A pigeon tumbling in clear summer air;
A laughing school-boy, without grief or care,
Riding the springy branches of an elm.
Then follows a cry for length enough of years (he will be content with ten) to carry out the poetic schemes which float before his mind; and here he returns to his ascending scale of poetic ambitions and sets it forth and amplifies it with a new richness of figurative imagery. First the realms of Pan and Flora, the pleasures of nature and the country and the enticements of toying nymphs (perhaps with a Virgilian touch in his memory from schoolboy days—Panaque Silvanumque senem nymphasque sorores—certainly with visions from Poussin’s Bacchanals in his mind’s eye): then, the ascent to loftier regions where the imagination has to grapple with the deeper mysteries of life and experiences of the soul. Here again he can only shadow forth his ideas by evoking shapes and actions of visible beings to stand for and represent them symbolically. He sees a charioteer guiding his horses among the clouds, looking out the while ‘with glorious fear,’ then swooping downward to alight on a grassy hillside; then talking with strange gestures to the trees and mountains, then gazing and listening, ‘awfully intent,’ and writing something on his tablets while a procession of various human shapes, ‘shapes of delight, of mystery and fear,’ sweeps on before his view, as if in pursuit of some ever-fleeting music, in the shadow cast by a grove of oaks. The dozen lines calling up to the mind’s eye the multitude and variety of figures in this procession—
Yes, thousands in a thousand different ways
contain less suggestion than we should have expected from what has gone before, of the events and tragedies of the world, ‘the agonies, the strife of human hearts,’—and close with the vision of
a lovely wreath of girls
Dancing their sleek hair into tangled curls,
as if images of pure pagan joy and beauty would keep forcing themselves on the young aspirant’s mind in spite of his resolve to train himself for the grapple with sterner themes.
This vision of the charioteer and his team remained in Keats’s mind as a symbol for the imagination and its energies. For the moment, so his poem goes on, the vision vanishes, and the sense of every-day realities seems like a muddy stream bearing his soul into nothingness. But he clings to the memory of that chariot and its journey; and thereupon turns to consider the history of English poetry and the dearth of imagination from which it had suffered for so many years. Here comes the famous outbreak, first of indignant and then of congratulatory criticism, which was the most explicit battle-cry of the romantic revolution in poetry since the publication of Wordsworth’s preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads seventeen years earlier:—
Is there so small a range
In the present strength of manhood, that the high
Imagination cannot freely fly
As she was wont of old? prepare her steeds,
Paw up against the light, and do strange deeds
Upon the clouds? Has she not shown us all?
From the clear space of ether, to the small
Breath of new buds unfolding? From the meaning
Of Jove’s large eye-brow, to the tender greening
Of April meadows? Here her altar shone,
E’en in this isle; and who could paragon
The fervid choir that lifted up a noise
Of harmony, to where it aye will poise
Its mighty self of convoluting sound,
Huge as a planet, and like that roll round,
Eternally around a dizzy void?
Ay, in those days the Muses were nigh cloy’d
With honors; nor had any other care
Than to sing out and sooth their wavy hair.
Could all this be forgotten? Yes, a schism
Nurtured by foppery and barbarism,
Made great Apollo blush for this his land.
Men were thought wise who could not understand
His glories: with a puling infant’s force
They sway’d about upon a rocking horse
And thought it Pegasus. Ah dismal soul’d!
The winds of heaven blew, the ocean roll’d
Its gathering waves—ye felt it not. The blue
Bared its eternal bosom, (9) and the dew
Of summer nights collected still to make
The morning precious: beauty was awake!
Why were ye not awake? But ye were dead
To things ye knew not of,—were closely wed
To musty laws lined out with wretched rule
And compass vile: so that ye thought a school
Of dolts to smooth, inlay, and clip, and fit,
Till, like the certain wands of Jacob’s wit,
Their verses tallied. Easy was the task:
A thousand handicraftsmen wore the mask
Of Poesy. Ill-fated, impious race!
That blasphemed the bright Lyrist to his face,
And did not know it,—no, they went about,
Holding a poor, decrepid standard out
Mark’d with most flimsy mottos, and in large
The name of one Boileau!
The two great elder captains of poetic revolution, Coleridge and Wordsworth, have expounded their cause, in prose, with full maturity of thought and language: Wordsworth in the austere contentions of his famous prefaces to his second edition (1800), Coleridge in the luminous retrospect of the Biographia Literaria (1816). In the interval a cloud of critics, including men of such gifts as Lamb, Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt, were in their several ways champions of the same cause. But none of these has left any enunciation of theory having power to thrill the ear and haunt the memory like the rimes of this young untrained recruit, John Keats. It is easy, indeed, to pick his verses to shreds, if we choose to fix a prosaic and rational attention on their faults. What is it, for instance, that imagination is asked to do? Fly, or drive? Is it she, or her steeds, that are to paw up against the light? And why paw? Deeds to be done upon clouds by pawing can hardly be other than strange. What sort of a verb is ‘I green, thou greenest?’ Why should the hair of the muses require ‘soothing’?—if it were their tempers it would be more intelligible. And surely ‘foppery’ belongs to civilization and not to ‘barbarism’: and a standard-bearer may be decrepit but not a standard, and a standard flimsy but not a motto. And so on without end, if we choose to let the mind assume that attitude and to resent the contemptuous treatment of a very finished artist and craftsman by one as yet obviously raw and imperfect. Byron, in his controversy with Bowles a year or two later, adopted this mode of attack effectively enough; his spleen against a contemporary finding as usual its most convenient weapon in an enthusiasm, partly real and partly affected, for the genius and the methods of Pope. But controversy apart, if we have in us a touch of instinct for the poetry of imagination and beauty, as distinct from that of taste and reason and ‘correctness’,—however clearly we may see the weak points of a passage like this, yet we cannot but feel that Keats touches truly the root of the matter: we cannot but admire the ring and power of his appeal to the elements, his fine spontaneous and effective turns of rhetoric, and the elastic life and variety of his verse.
So much for the indignant part of the passage. The congratulatory part repeats with different imagery the sense of the sonnet to Haydon beginning ‘Great spirits now on earth are sojourning,’ and declares that fine sounds are once more floating wild about the earth, wherefore the Muses are now glad and happy. But the congratulations, it next occurs to the young poet, need to be qualified. To some of the recent achievements of poetry he demurs, declaring that their themes of song are ‘ugly clubs’ and the poets who fling them Polyphemuses ‘disturbing the grand sea of song’ (Keats is here remembering the huge club which Ulysses and his companions, in the Homeric story, find in the cave of Polyphemus, and confusing it with the rocks which the blinded giant later tears up and hurls after them into the sea). (10) The obvious supposition is that Keats is here referring to Byron’s Eastern tales, with their clamour and heat and violence of melodramatic action and passion. Leigh Hunt, indeed, who ought to have known, asserts in his review of the volume that they are aimed against ‘the morbidity which taints some of the productions of the poets of the Lake School.’ I suspect that Hunt is here attributing to Keats some of his own poetical aversions. What productions can he mean? Southey’s Curse of Kehama? Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner or Christabel? Wordsworth’s relatively few poems, or episodes, of tragic life—as the Mad Mother, Ruth, Margaret? For certainly the strained simplicities and trivialities of some of his country ballads, which were what Leigh Hunt and his friends most disliked in Wordsworth’s work, could never be called thunders.
But these jarring things, Keats goes on, shall not disturb him. He will believe in and seek to enter upon the kingdom of poetry where all shall be gentle and soothing like a lawn beneath a myrtle tree,
And they shall be accounted poet-kings
Who simply sing the most heart-easing things.
Then a momentary terror of his own presumption seizes him; but he puts it away, defies despondency, and declares that for all his youth and lack of learning and wisdom, he has a vast idea before him, and a clear conception of the end and aim of poetry. Dare the utmost he will—and then once more the sense of the greatness of the task comes over him, and he falls back for support on thoughts of recent friendship and encouragement. A score of lines follow, recalling happy talks at Hunt’s over books and prints: the memory of these calls up by association a string of the delights (‘luxuries’ as in Huntian phrase he calls them) of nature: thence he recurs to the pleasures of sleep, or rather of a night when sleep failed him for thinking over the intercourse he had been enjoying and the place where he now rested—that is on the couch in Hunt’s library. Here follow the lines quoted above (p. 53) about the prints on the library walls: and the piece concludes:—
The very sense of where I was might well
Keep Sleep aloof: but more than that there came
Thought after thought to nourish up the flame
Within my breast; so that the morning light
Surprised me even from a sleepless night;
And up I rose refresh’d, and glad, and gay,
Resolving to begin that very day
These lines; and howsoever they be done,
I leave them as a father does his son.
The best reason for thinking that the poem ‘I stood tip-toe,’ though probably finished quite as late as Sleep and Poetry, was begun earlier, is that in it Keats again follows the practice which he had attempted in Calidore and its Induction but gave up in Sleep and Poetry, namely that of occasionally introducing a lyrical effect with a six-syllable line, in the manner used by Spenser in the Epithalamion and Milton in Lycidas,—
Open afresh your round of starry folds,
Ye ardent marigolds!
No conclusion as to the date when the piece was begun can be drawn from the scene of summer freshness with which it opens, or from Leigh Hunt’s statement that this description was suggested by a summer’s day when he stood at a certain spot on Hampstead Heath. This may be quite true, but in the mind of a poet such scenes ripen by recollection, and Keats may at any after day have evoked it for his purpose, which was to bring his imagination to the right taking-off place—to plant it, so to speak, on the right spring-board—from which to start on its flight through a whole succession of other and kindred images of natural beauty. Some of the series of evocations that follow are already almost in the happiest vein of Keats’s lighter nature-poetry, especially the four lines about the sweet peas on tip-toe for a flight, and the long passage recalling his boyish delights by the Edmonton brookside and telling (in lines which Tennyson has remembered in his idyll of Enid) how the minnows would scatter beneath the shadow of a lifted hand and come together again. When in the course of his recapitulation there comes to him the image of the moon appearing from behind a cloud, he breaks off to apostrophize that goddess of his imaginative idolatry, that source at once and symbol, for such to his instinct she truly was, of poetic inspiration. But for the moment he does not pursue the theme: he pauses to trace the affinities between several kinds of nature-delight and corresponding moods of poetry,—
In the calm grandeur of a sober line,
We see the waving of the mountain pine;
And when a tale is beautifully staid,
We feel the safety of a hawthorn glade,—
and so forth. And then, having in his mind’s eye, as I should guess, some of the mythological prints from Hunt’s portfolios, he asks what moods or phases of nature first inspired the poets of old with the fables of Cupid and Psyche and of Pan and Syrinx, of Narcissus and Echo, and most beautiful of all, that of Cynthia and Endymion,—and for the remaining fifty lines of the poem moonlight and the Endymion story take full possession. The lines imagining the occasion of the myth’s invention are lovely:—
He was a Poet, sure a lover too,
Who stood on Latmus’ top, what time there blew
Soft breezes from the myrtle vale below;
And brought in faintness solemn, sweet, and slow
A hymn from Dian’s temple; while upswelling,
The incense went to her own starry dwelling.
But though her face was clear as infant’s eyes,
Though she stood smiling o’er the sacrifice,
The Poet wept at her so piteous fate,
Wept that such beauty should be desolate:
So in fine wrath some golden sounds he won,
And gave meek Cynthia her Endymion.
Then, treating the bridal night for the moment not as a myth but as a thing that actually happened, he recounts, in a strain of purely human tenderness which owes something to his hospital experience and which he was hardly afterwards to surpass, the sweet and beneficent influences diffused on that night about the world:—
The breezes were ethereal and pure,
And crept through half-closed lattices to cure
The languid sick; it cool’d their fever’d sleep,
And soothed them into slumbers full and deep.
Soon they awoke clear eyed, nor burnt with thirsting,
Nor with hot fingers, nor with temples bursting:
And springing up, they met the wondering sight
Of their dear friends, nigh foolish with delight;
Who feel their arms and breasts, and kiss and stare,
And on their placid foreheads part the hair.
Young men and maidens at each other gaz’d
With hands held back, and motionless, amaz’d
To see the brightness in each other’s eyes.
Then, closing, he asks himself the momentous question, ‘Was there a poet born?’ which he intended that his next year’s work should answer.
In neither of these poems is the use of Elizabethan verbal forms, or the coinage of similar forms by analogy, carried nearly as far as we shall find it carried later on, especially in Endymion. The abstract nouns expressing qualities pleasant to the senses or the sensuous imagination, on the model of those in Chapman’s Hymn to Pan, increase in number, and we get the ‘quaint mossiness of aged roots,’ the ‘hurrying freshnesses’ of a stream running over gravel, the ‘pure deliciousness’ of the Endymion story, the ‘pillow silkiness’ of clouds, the ‘blue cragginess’ of other clouds, and the ‘widenesses’ of the ocean of poetry. Once, evidently with William Browne’s ‘roundly form’ in his mind, Keats invents, infelicitously enough, an adjective ‘boundly’ for ‘bounden.’ In the matter of metre, he is now fairly well at home in the free Elizabethan use of the couplet, letting his periods develop themselves unhampered, suffering his full pauses to fall at any point in the line where the sense calls for them, the rime echo to come full and emphatic or faint and light as may be, and the pause following the rime-word to be shorter or longer or almost non-existent on occasion. If his ear was for the moment attuned to the harmonies of any special master among the Elizabethans, it was by this time Fletcher rather than Browne: at least in Sleep and Poetry the double endings no longer come in clusters as they did in the earlier epistle, nor are the intervening couplets so nearly regular, while there is a marked preference for emphasizing an adjective by placing it at the end of a line and letting its noun follow at the beginning of the next,—‘the high | Imagination,’—‘the small | Breath of new buds unfolding.’ The reader will best see my point if he will compare the movement of the passages in Sleep and Poetry where these things occur with the Endymion passage he will find quoted later on from the Faithful Shepherdess (p. 168).
As to contemporary influences apparent in Keats’s first volume, enough has been said concerning that of Leigh Hunt. The influence of an incommensurably greater poet, of Wordsworth, is also to be traced in it. That Keats was by this time a diligent and critical admirer of Wordsworth we know: both of the earlier poems and of the Excursion, which had appeared when his passion for poetry was already at its height in the last year of his apprenticeship at Edmonton. There is a famous passage in the fourth book of The Excursion where Wordsworth treats of the spirit of Greek religion and imagines how some of its conceptions first took shape:—
In that fair clime, the lonely herdsman, stretched
On the soft grass through half a summer’s day,
With music lulled his indolent repose:
And, in some fit of weariness, if he,
When his own breath was silent, chanced to hear
A distant strain, far sweeter than the sounds
Which his poor skill could make, his fancy fetched,
Even from the blazing chariot of the sun,
A beardless Youth, who touched a golden lute,
And filled the illumined groves with ravishment.
The nightly hunter, lifting a bright eye
Up towards the crescent moon, with grateful heart
Called on the lovely wanderer who bestowed
That timely light, to share his joyous sport:
And hence, a beaming Goddess with her Nymphs,
Across the lawn and through the darksome grove,
Not unaccompanied with tuneful notes
By echo multiplied from rock or cave,
Swept in the storm of chase; as moon and stars
Glance rapidly along the clouded heaven,
When winds are blowing strong.
Keats, we know, was familiar with this passage, and a little later on we shall find him criticizing it in conversation with a friend. Leigh Hunt, in a review written at the time, hints that it was in his mind when he wrote the lines in ‘I stood tip-toe,’ asking in what mood or under what impulse a number of the Grecian fables were first invented and giving the answers to his own questions. We may take Hunt’s word for the fact, seeing that he was constantly in Keats’s company at the time. Other critics have gone farther and supposed it was from Wordsworth that Keats first learned truly to understand Greek mythology. I do not at all think so. He would never have pored so passionately over the stories in the classical dictionaries as a schoolboy, nor mused on them so intently in the field walks of his apprentice days by sunset and moonlight, had not some inborn instinct made the world of ancient fable and the world of natural beauty each equally living to his apprehension and each equally life-giving to the other. Wordsworth’s interpretations will no doubt have appealed to him profoundly, but not as something new, only as putting eloquently and justly what he had already felt and divined by native instinct.
Again, it has been acutely pointed out by Mr Robert Bridges how some of the ideas expressed by Keats in his own way in Sleep and Poetry run parallel with some of those expressed in a very different way by Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey, a poem which we know from other evidence to have been certainly much in Keats’s mind a year and a half later. Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey defines three stages of his own emotional and imaginative development in relation to nature: first the stage of mere boisterous physical and animal pleasure: then that of intense and absorbing, but still unreflecting passion,—
An appetite, a feeling and a love
That had no need of a remoter charm
By thought supplied, nor any interest
Unborrowed from the eye,—
and lastly the higher, more humanized and spiritualized passion doubly enriched by the ever-present haunting of ‘the still, sad music of humanity,’ and by the
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
Mr Bridges finds Wordsworth’s conception of these three stages more or less accurately paralleled in various passages of Keats’s Sleep and Poetry. One passage which he quotes, that in which Keats figures human life under the string of joyous images beginning, ‘A pigeon tumbling in clear summer air’, seems to me irrelevant, as being simply the answer of the poet’s soul to certain melancholy promptings of its own. On the other hand there certainly is something that reminds us of Wordsworth’s three stages in Keats’s repeated indication of the ascending scale of theme and temper along which he hopes to work. And his long figurative passage beginning—
And can I ever bid these joys farewell?
Yes, I must pass them for a nobler life—
may fairly, at its outset, be compared with Wordsworth’s final stage: only, as I have asked the reader to note, the procession of symbolic and enigmatic forms and actions which Keats summons up before our mind’s eye, so far from having any fixed or increasing character of pensiveness or gravity, winds up with a figure of sheer animal happiness and joy of life.
Mr Bridges further notes, very justly, the striking contrast between the methods of the elder and the younger poet in these passages, defining Wordsworth’s as a subjective and Keats’s as an objective method. I should be inclined to describe the same difference in another way, and to say that both by gift and purpose it was the part of Wordsworth to meditate and expound, while the part of Keats was to imagine and evoke. Wordsworth, bringing strong powers of abstract thinking to bear on his intense and intensely realized personal experience, expounds the spiritual relations of man to nature as he conceives them, sometimes, as in Tintern Abbey and many passages of The Prelude and Excursion, with more revealing insight and a more exalted passion than any other poet has attained; sometimes, alas! quite otherwise, when his passion has subsided, and he must needs to go back upon his experiences and droningly and flatly analyse and explain them. Keats, on the other hand, had a mind constitutionally unapt for abstract thinking. When he conceives or wishes to express general ideas, his only way of doing so is by calling up, from the multitudes of concrete images with which his memory and imagination are haunted, such as strike him as fitted by their colour and significance, their quality of association and suggestion, to stand for and symbolize the abstractions working in his mind; and in this concrete and figurative fashion he will be found, by those who take the pains to follow him, to think coherently and purposefully enough. Again, Keats’s sense of personal identity was ever ready to be dissolved and carried under by the strength of his imaginative sympathies. It is not the effect of nature on his personal self that he realizes and ponders over; what he does is with ever-participating joy and instantaneous instinct to go out into the doings of nature and lose himself in them. In the result he neither strives for or attains, as Mr Bridges truly points out, the sheer intellectual lucidity which Wordsworth in his most impassioned moments never loses. But as, in regard to nature, Wordsworth’s is the genius of luminous exposition, so Keats’s, even among the immaturities of his first volume, is the genius of living evocation.
(1) The lines I mean are—
This canopy mark: ’tis the work of a fay;
Beneath its rich shade did King Oberon languish,
When lovely Titania was far, far away,
And cruelly left him to sorrow, and anguish.
Shakespeare’s hint for his Oberon and Titania was taken, as is well known, from the French prose romance Huon of Bordeaux translated by Lord Berners. The plot of Wieland’s celebrated poem is founded entirely on the same romance. With its high-spiced blend of the marvellous and the voluptuous, the cynically gay and the heavily moral and pathetic, it had a considerable vogue in Sotheby’s translation (published 1798) and played a part in the English romantic movement of the time. There are several passages in Keats, notably in The Cap and Bells, where I seem to catch a strain reminiscent of this Oberon, and one instance where a definite phrase from it seems to have lingered subconsciously in his memory and been turned to gold, thus:—
Oft in this speechless language, glance on glance,
When mute the tongue, how voluble the heart!
Oberon, c. vi, st. 17.
No utter’d syllable, or woe betide!
But to her heart her heart was voluble.
The Eve of St Agnes, st. 23.
(2) March 1816 according to Woodhouse.
(3) The Prelude, book v.
(4) See above, p. 68.
(5) Particularly Sonnet XII:—
Voi che portate la sembianza umile,
Cogli occhi bassi mostrando dolore.
It would have been easy to suppose that Keats had learnt something of the Vita Nuova through Leigh Hunt: but they were not yet acquainted when he wrote the Leander sonnet, so that the resemblance is most likely accidental.
(6) In the earlier editions this sonnet is headed On a picture of Leander. A note of Woodhouse (Houghton MSS., Transcripts III) puts the matter right and gives the date. Which particular Leander gem of Tassie’s Keats had before him it is impossible to tell. The general catalogue of Tassie’s reproductions gives a list of over sixty representing Leander swimming either alone or with Hero looking down at him from her tower. Most of them were not from true antiques but from later imitations.
(7) Here, for instance, are verses of Keats that have often been charged with Cockneyism and Huntism:—
And revelled in a chat that ceased not
When at nightfall among our books we got.
The silence when some rimes are coming out,
And when they’re come, the very pleasant rout.
Well, but had not Drayton written in his Epistle to Henry Reynolds?—
My dearly lovèd friend how oft have we
In winter evenings (meaning to be free)
To some well-chosen place used to retire,
And there with moderate meat, and wine, and fire,
Have past the hour contentedly with chat,
Now talked of this and then discoursed of that,
Spoke our own verses ‘twixt ourselves, if not
Other men’s lines, which we by chance had got.
And Milton in the Vacation Exercise?—
I have some lively thoughts that rove about,
And loudly knock to have their passage out.
(8) It is to be remembered that in his famous volume of 1820 Keats prints first the poem he had last written, Lamia.
(9) So Wordsworth in his famous sonnet:—
This sea that bares its bosom to the moon.
(10) In Lord Houghton’s and nearly all editions of Keats, including, I am sorry to say, my own, this phrase has been corrected, quite without cause, into the trite ‘ugly cubs.’
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