CHAPTER IX (About John Keats by Sidney Colvin)


First sight of Windermere—Ambleside, Rydal, Keswick—Attitude towards scenery—Ascent of Skiddaw—A country dancing-school—Dumfries—The Galloway coast—Meg Merrilies—Flying visit to Belfast—Contrasts and reflections—The Duchess of Dunghill—The Ayrshire coast—In Burns’s cottage—Lines on his pilgrimage—Through Glasgow to Loch Lomond—A confession—Loch Awe to the coast—Hardships—Kerre a and Mull—Staffa—A sea cathedral—Ben Nevis—Tour cut short—Return to Hampstead.

The farewells at Liverpool over, Keats and Brown went on by coach to Lancaster, thence to begin their tour on foot. Keats took for his reading one book only, the miniature three-volume edition of Cary’s Dante. Brown, it would appear, carried a pocket Milton. They found the town of Lancaster in an uproar with the preparations for a contested election and were glad to leave it. Rising at four in the morning (June 25th) to make a start before breakfast, they were detained by a downpour, during which Brown preached patience from Samson Agonistes; at seven they set out in a still dripping mist; breakfasted at Bolton-le-Sands; stopped to dine at the village of Burton-in-Kendal, and found the inns crowded, to their hosts’ distraction, with soldiers summoned by the Lowther interest to keep order at the election. This was the famous contest where Brougham had the effrontery, as his opponents considered it, to go down and challenge for the first time the power of that great family in their own country. The same state of things prevailed farther down the road. Hearing that they could not hope to find a bed at Kendal, they slept in a mean roadside inn at End Moor, taking interested note of a sad old dog of a drunkard, fallen from better days, whom they found there; and the next morning walked on, passing Kendal on their way, as far as Bowness on Windermere. As they dropped down the hill and came in sight of the lake the weather yielded fine effects of clearance after rain; and Brown, in the account compiled twenty years later from his diaries written at the time, (1) expatiates in full romantic vein on the joy and amazement with which Keats and he drank in the beauties of the varied and shifting scene before them:—

On the next morning, after reaching Kendal, we had our first really joyous walk of nine miles towards the lake of Windermere. The country was mild and romantic, the weather fine, though not sunny, while the fresh mountain air, and many larks about us, gave us unbounded delight. As we approached the lake the scenery became more and more grand and beautiful, and from time to time we stayed our steps, gazing intently on it. Hitherto, Keats had witnessed nothing superior to Devonshire; but, beautiful as that is, he was now tempted to speak of it with indifference. At the first turn from the road, before descending to the hamlet of Bowness, we both simultaneously came to a full stop. The lake lay before us. His bright eyes darted on a mountain-peak, beneath which was gently floating on a silver cloud; thence to a very small island, adorned with the foliage of trees, that lay beneath us, and surrounded by water of ? glorious hue, when he exclaimed—‘How can I believe in that a—surely it cannot be!’ He warmly asserted that no view in the world could equal this—that it must beat all Italy—yet, having moved onward but a hundred yards—catching the further extremity of the lake, he thought it ‘more and more wonderfully beautiful!’ The trees far and near, the grass immediately around us, the fern and the furze in their most luxuriant growth, all added to the charm. Not a mist, but an imperceptible vapour bestowed a mellow, softened tint over the immense mountains on the opposite side and at the further end of the lake.

After a bathe and a midday meal at Bowness the friends walked on with ever increasing delight to Ambleside. Spending the night there they scrambled about the neighbouring waterfalls, and endured as patiently as they could the advances of a youth lately from Oxford, touring knapsack on back like themselves but painfully bent on showing himself off for a scholar and buck about town, airing his pedigree and connexions while affecting to make light of them. The next day they went on by Grasmere to Rydal, where they paused that Keats might call and pay his respects to Wordsworth. But the poet was away at Lowther Castle electioneering (he had been exerting himself vigorously in the Tory and Lowther interest since the spring in prospect of this contest). Complete want of sympathy with the cause of his absence made Keats’s disappointment the keener; and finding none of the family at home he could do no more than leave a note of regret. The same afternoon the travellers reached the hamlet of Wythburn and slept there as well as fleas would allow, intending to climb Helvellyn the next morning. Heavy rain interfering, they pursued their way by Thirlmere to Keswick, made the circuit of Derwentwater, visited the Druids’ Circle and the Falls of Lodore, and set out at four the next morning to climb Skiddaw. A cloud-cap settling down compelled them to stop a little short of the summit, and they resumed their tramp by Bassenthwaite into the relatively commonplace country lying between the lakes and Carlisle, making their next night’s resting-place at the old market town of Ireby.

I have shown by a specimen how Brown, working from his diaries of the tour, expatiates on his and his companion’s enthusiasm over the romantic scenes they visited. Keats in his own letters says comparatively little about the scenery, and that quite simply and quietly, not at all with the descriptive enthusiasm of the picturesque tourist: hardly indeed with so much of that quality as the sedate and fastidious Gray had shown in his itineraries fifty years before. Partly, no doubt, a certain instinctive reticence, a restraining touch of the Greek αἰδώς, keeps him from fluent words on the beauties that most deeply moved him: his way rather is to let them work silently in his being until at the right moment, if the right moment comes, their essence and vital power shall distil themselves for him into a phrase of poetry. Partly, also, the truth is that an intensely active, intuitive genius for nature like his hardly needs the stimulus of nature’s beauties for long or at their highest power, but on a minimum of experience can summon up and multiply for itself spirit sunsets, and glories of dream lake and mountain, richer and more varied than the mere receptive lover of scenery can witness and register in memory during a lifetime of travel and pursuit. In this respect Keats’s letters written on his northern tour seem more essentially the letters of a poet than Shelley’s from Switzerland and Italy. Shelley pours out long, set, detailed descriptions, written as any cultivated and enthusiastic observer visiting such scenes for the first time might write, only with more beauty and resource of language, rather than as one made by imagination a born partner and co-creator with nature herself, free by birthright of her glories and knowing them all, as it were, beforehand. Keats’s way of telling about his travels is quite familiar and unstrained. Here is a paragraph from his first letter to his brother Tom, written at Keswick after walking round Derwentwater and climbing Skiddaw:—

I had an easy climb among the streams, about the fragments of Rocks, and should have got I think to the summit, but unfortunately I was damped by slipping one leg into a squashy hole. There is no great body of water, but the accompaniment is delightful; for it oozes out from a cleft in perpendicular Rocks, all fledged with ash and other beautiful trees. It is a strange thing how they got there. At the south end of the Lake the Mountains of Borrowdale are perhaps as fine as anything we have seen. On our return from this circuit, we ordered dinner, and set forth about a mile and a half on the Penrith road, to see the Druid temple. We had a fag up hill, rather too near dinner-time, which was rendered void by the gratification of seeing those aged stones on a gentle rise in the midst of the Mountains, which at that time darkened all around, except at the fresh opening of the Vale of St. John. We went to bed rather fatigued, but not so much so as to hinder us getting up this morning to mount Skiddaw. It promised all along to be fair, and we had fagged and tugged nearly to the top, when, at half-past six, there came a Mist upon us, and shut out the view. We did not, however, lose anything by it: we were high enough without mist to see the coast of Scotland—the Irish Sea—the hills beyond Lancaster—and nearly all the large ones of Cumberland and Westmoreland, particularly Helvelleyn and Scawfell. It grew colder and colder as we ascended, and we were glad, at about three parts of the way, to taste a little rum which the Guide brought with him, mixed, mind ye, with Mountain water. I took two glasses going and one returning. It is about six miles from where I am writing to the top. So we have walked ten miles before Breakfast to-day. We went up with two others, very good sort of fellows. All felt, on arising into the cold air, that same elevation which a cold bath gives one—I felt as if I were going to a Tournament.

For an instant only, the poet in Keats speaks vividly in the tournament touch; and farther back, illustrating what I have said about his instinct for distillation rather than description, will be found the germs of two famous passages in his later verse, the ‘dark-clustered trees’ that

Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep

in the Ode to Psyche, and the lines in Hyperion about the

dismal cirque
Of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor
When the chill rain begins at shut of eve,
In dull November, and their chancel vault,
The Heaven itself, is blinded throughout night.

A change, it should be added, was coming over Keats’s thoughts and feelings whereby natural scenery in general was beginning to interest him less and his fellow creatures more. In the acuteness of childish and boyish sensation, among the suburban fields or on seaside holidays, he had instinctively, as if by actual partnership with and self-absorption into nature, gained enough delighted knowledge of her ways and doings for his faculties to work on through a lifetime of poetry; and now, in his second chamber of Maiden-thought, the appeal of nature, even at its most thrilling, yields in his mind to that of humanity. ‘Scenery is fine,’ he had already written from Devonshire in the spring, ‘but human nature is finer.’ So far as concerns shrewd and interested observation of human types encountered by the way, he had a sympathetic companion in Brown, whose diary sets effectively before us alike the sodden, wheedling old toper, staggering with hanging arms like a bear on its hind feet, in the inn at End Moor, and the vulgar, uneasy gentlemanhood of the flash Oxford man at Ambleside. Here is Brown’s account of what they saw at Ireby:—

It is a dull, beggarly looking place. Our inn was remarkably clean and neat, and the old host and hostess were very civil and prepossessing—but, heyday! what were those obstreperous doings overhead? It was a dancing school under the tuition of a travelling master! Folks here were as partial to dancing as their neighbours, the Scotch; and every little farmer sent his young ones to take lessons. We went upstairs to witness the skill of these rustic boys and girls—fine, healthy, clean-dressed, and withal perfectly orderly, as well as serious in their endeavours. We noticed some among them quite handsome, but the attention of none was drawn aside to notice us. The instant the fiddle struck up, the slouch in the gait was lost, the feet moved, and gracefully, with complete conformity to the notes; and they wove the figure, sometimes extremely complicated to my inexperienced eyes, without an error, or the slightest pause. There was no sauntering, half-asleep country dance among them; all were inspired.

And here is the same scene as touched by Keats:—

We were greatly amused by a country dancing-school holden at the Tun, it was indeed ‘no new cotillon fresh from France.’ No, they kickit and jumpit with mettle extraordinary, and whiskit, and friskit, and toed it and go’d it, and twirl’d it, and whirl’d it, and stamped it, and sweated it, tattooing the floor like mad. (2) The difference between our country dances and these Scottish figures is about the same as leisurely stirring a cup o’ Tea and beating up a batter-pudding. I was extremely gratified to think that, if I had pleasures they knew nothing of, they had also some into which I could not possibly enter. I hope I shall not return without having got the Highland fling. There was as fine a row of boys and girls as you ever saw; some beautiful faces, and one exquisite mouth. I never felt so near the glory of Patriotism, the glory of making by any means a country happier. This is what I like better than scenery.

From Ireby the friends walked by way of Wigton to Carlisle, arriving there on the last day of June. From Carlisle they took coach to Dumfries, having heard that the intervening country was not interesting: neither did Keats much admire what he saw of it. Besides the familiar beauties of the home counties of England, two ideals of landscape had haunted and allured his imagination almost equally, that of the classic south, harmonious and sunned and gay, and that of the shadowed, romantic and adventurous north; and the Scottish border, with its bleak and moorish rain-swept distances, its ‘huddle of cold old grey hills’ (the phrase is Stevenson’s) struck him somehow as answering to neither. ‘I know not how it is, the clouds, the sky, the houses, all seem anti-Grecian and anti-Charlemagnish.’

So writes Keats from Dumfries, where they visited the tomb of Burns and the ruins of Lincluden College, and where Keats expressed his sense of foreignness and dreamlike discomfort in a sonnet interesting as the record of a mood but of small merit poetically. Brown also, a Scotsman from the outer Hebrides, as he believed, by descent, but by habit and education purely English, felt himself at first an alien in the Scottish Lowlands. On this stage of the walk they were both unpleasurably struck by the laughterless gravity and cold greetings of the people, (‘more serious and solidly inanimated than necessary’ Brown calls them) and by the lack of anything like the English picturesque and gardened snugness in villages and houses: Brown also by the barefoot habit of the girls and women, but this Keats liked, expatiating to his friend on the beauty of a lassie’s natural uncramped foot and its colour against the grass.

From Dumfries they started on July 2 south-westward for Galloway, a region not overmuch frequented even now, and then hardly at all, by tourists: even Wordsworth on his several Scottish trips passed it by unexplored. Our travellers broke the journey first at Dalbeattie: thence on to Kirkcudbright, with a long morning pause for breakfast and letter-writing by the wayside near Auchencairn. Approaching the Kirkcudbrightshire coast, with its scenery at once wild and soft, its embosomed inlets and rocky tufted headlands, its high craggy moors towering inland, and its backward views over the glimmering Solway to the Cumberland fells or the hazier hills of Man, they began to enjoy themselves to the full. Brown bethought him that this was Guy Mannering’s country, and fell talking to Keats about Meg Merrilies. Keats, who according to the fashion of his circle was no enthusiast for Scott’s poetry, and of the Waverley novels, at this time guessed but not known to be Scott’s, had read The Antiquary (to which he whimsically preferred Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker) but not Guy Mannering, was much struck by what he heard.

I enjoyed the recollection of the events [writes Brown] as I described them in their own scenes. There was a little spot, close to our pathway, where, without a shadow of doubt, old Meg Merrilies had often boiled her kettle, and, haply, cooked a chicken. It was among fragments of rock, and brambles, and broom, and most tastefully ornamented with a profusion of honeysuckle, wild roses, and fox-glove, all in the very blush and fullness of blossom. While finishing breakfast, and both employed in writing, I could not avoid noticing that Keats’s letter was not running in regular prose. He told me he was writing to his little sister, and giving a ballad on old Meg for her amusement. Though he called it too much a trifle to be copied, I soon inserted it in my journal. It struck me as a good description of that mystic link between mortality and the weird sisters; and, at the same time, in appropriate language to the person addressed.

Old Meg she was a Gipsy,
And liv’d upon the Moors:
Her bed it was the brown heath turf
And her house was out of doors. 

Her apples were swart blackberries,
Her currants pods o’ broom;
Her wine was dew of the wild white rose,
Her book a churchyard tomb.

Her Brothers were the craggy hills,
Her Sisters larchen trees—
Alone with her great family
She liv’d as she did please.

No breakfast had she many a morn,
No dinner many a noon,
And ‘stead of supper she would stare
Full hard against the Moon.

But every morn of woodbine fresh
She made her garlanding,
And every night the dark glen Yew
She wove, and she would sing.

And with her fingers old and brown
She plaited Mats o’ Rushes,
And gave them to the Cottagers
She met among the Bushes.

Old Meg was brave as Margaret Queen
And tall as Amazon:
An old red blanket cloak she wore;
A chip hat had she on.
God rest her aged bones somewhere—
She died full long agone!

Keats had in this ‘trifle,’ using the ballad form for the first time, handled it with faultless tact, and though leaving out the tragic features of Scott’s creation, had been able to evoke of his own an instantaneous vision of her in vitally conceived spiritual relation with her surroundings. (3) He copied the piece out in letters written in pauses of their walk both to his young sister and to his brother Tom. The letter to Fanny Keats is full of fun and nonsense, with a touch or two which shows that he was fully sensitive to the charm of the Galloway coast scenery. ‘Since I scribbled the Meg Merrilies song we have walked through a beautiful country to Kirkcudbright—at which place I will write you a song about myself.’ Then follows the set of gay doggrel stanzas telling of various escapades of himself as a child and since,—‘There was a naughty boy;’ and then the excuse for them,—‘My dear Fanny, I am ashamed of writing you such stuff, nor would I if it were not for being tired after my day’s walking, and ready to tumble into bed so fatigued that when I am in bed you might sew my nose to my great toe and trundle me round the town, like a Hoop, without waking me.’ It was his way on his tour, and indeed always, thus to keep by him the letters he was writing and add scraps to them as the fancy took him. The systematic Brown, on the other hand, wrote regularly and uniformly in the evenings. ‘He affronts my indolence and luxury,’ says Keats, ‘by pulling out of his knapsack, first his paper; secondly his pens; and last, his ink. Now I would not care, if he would change a little. I say now, why not take out his pens first sometimes? But I might as well tell a hen to hold up her head before she drinks, instead of afterwards.’

From Kirkcudbright they walked on July 5,—taking the beautiful coast road from Gatehouse of Fleet and passing where Cairnsmore heaves a huge heathered shoulder above the fertile farmlands of the Cree valley,—as far as Newton Stewart: thence across the low-rolling Wigtownshire country by Glenluce to Stranraer and Portpatrick. Here they took the packet for Donaghadee on the opposite coast of Ireland, with the intention of seeing the Giant’s Causeway, but finding the distances and expense much exceed their calculation, contented themselves with a walk to Belfast, and crossed back again to Portpatrick on the third day. In a letter to his brother Tom written during and immediately after this excursion, Keats has some striking passages of human observation and reflection. The change of spirit between one generation and another is forcibly brought home to us when we think of Johnson, setting forth on his Scottish tour forty-five years earlier with the study of men, manners and social conditions in his mind as the one aim worthy of a serious traveller, (he had spoken scoffingly, not long before, of the ‘prodigious noble wild prospects’ which Scotland, he understood, shared with Lapland), yet forced now and again by the power of scenery to break, as it were half ashamedly, into stiff but striking phrases of descriptive admiration; and when now we find Keats, carried northward by the romantic passion and fashion of a later day for nature and scenery, compelled in his turn by his innate human instincts to forget the landscape and observe and speculate upon problems of society and economics and racial character:—

These Kirk-men have done Scotland good. They have made men, women; old men, young men; old women, young women; boys, girls; and all infants careful; so that they are formed into regular Phalanges of savers and gainers. Such a thrifty army cannot fail to enrich their Country, and give it a greater appearance of comfort than that of their poor rash neighbourhood [meaning Ireland]. These Kirk-men have done Scotland harm; they have banished puns, and laughing, and kissing, etc., (except in cases where the very danger and crime must make it very gustful). I shall make a full stop at kissing, … and go on to remind you of the fate of Burns poor, unfortunate fellow! his disposition was Southern! How sad it is when a luxurious imagination is obliged, in self-defence, to deaden its delicacy in vulgarity and in things attainable, that it may not have leisure to go mad after things that are not!… I have not sufficient reasoning faculty to settle the doctrine of thrift, as it is consistent with the dignity of human Society—with the happiness of Cottagers. All I can do is by plump contrasts; were the fingers made to squeeze a guinea or a white hand?—were the lips made to hold a pen or a kiss? and yet in Cities man is shut out from his fellows if he is poor—the cottager must be very dirty, and very wretched, if she be not thrifty—the present state of society demands this, and this convinces me that the world is very young, and in a very ignorant state. We live in a barbarous age—I would sooner be a wild deer, than a girl under the dominion of the Kirk; and I would sooner be a wild hog, than be the occasion of a poor Creature’s penance before those execrable elders.

Here is an impression received in Ireland, followed by a promise, which was fulfilled a few days later with remarkable shrewdness and insight, of further considerations on the contrasts between the Irish character and the Scottish:—

On our return from Belfast we met a sedan—the Duchess of Dunghill. It was no laughing matter though. Imagine the worst dog-kennel you ever saw, placed upon two poles from a mouldy fencing. In such a wretched thing sat a squalid old woman, squat like an ape half-starved from a scarcity of biscuit in its passage from Madagascar to the Cape, with a pipe in her mouth and looking out with a round-eyed, skinny-lidded inanity, with a sort of horizontal idiotic movement of her head: squat and lean she sat, and puffed out the smoke, while two ragged, tattered girls carried her along. What a thing would be a history of her life and sensations; I shall endeavour when I have thought a little more, to give you my idea of the difference between the Scotch and Irish.

From Stranraer the friends made straight for Burns’s country, walking along the coast by Ballantrae, Girvan, Kirkoswald and Maybole (the same walk that Stevenson took the reverse way in the winter of 1876) to Ayr. Brown grows especially lyrical, and Keats more enthusiastic than usual, over the beauty of the first day’s walk from Stranraer by Cairn Ryan and Glen App, with Ailsa Craig suddenly looming up through showers after they topped the pass:—

When we left Cairn [writes Keats] our Road lay half way up the sides of a green mountainous shore, full of clefts of verdure and eternally varying—sometimes up sometimes down, and over little Bridges going across green chasms of moss, rock and trees—winding about everywhere. After two or three Miles of this we turned suddenly into a magnificent glen finely wooded in Parts—seven Miles long—with a Mountain stream winding down the Midst—full of cottages in the most happy situations—the sides of the Hills covered with sheep—the effect of cattle lowing I never had so finely. At the end we had a gradual ascent and got among the tops of the Mountains whence in a little time I descried in the Sea Ailsa Rock 940 feet high—it was 15 Miles distant and seemed close upon us. The effect of Ailsa with the peculiar perspective of the Sea in connection with the ground we stood on, and the misty rain then falling gave me a complete Idea of a deluge. Ailsa struck me very suddenly—really I was a little alarmed.

Less vivid than the above is the invocatory sonnet, apparently showing acquaintance with the geological theory of volcanic upheaval, which Keats was presently moved to address To Ailsa Rock. Coming down into Ballantrae in blustering weather, the friends met a country wedding party on horseback, and Keats tried a song about it in the Burns dialect, for Brown to palm off on Dilke as an original: ‘but it won’t do,’ he rightly decides. From Maybole he writes to Reynolds with pleased anticipation of the visit to be paid the next day to Burns’s cottage. ‘One of the pleasantest means of annulling self is approaching such a shrine as the cottage of Burns—we need not think of his misery—that is all gone—bad luck to it—I shall look upon it all with unmixed pleasure, as I do upon my Stratford-on-Avon day with Bailey.’ On the walk from Maybole to Ayr Keats has almost the only phrase which escapes him during the whole tour to indicate a sense of special inspiring power in mountain scenery for a poet:—‘The approach to it [Ayr] is extremely fine—quite outwent my expectations—richly meadowed, wooded, heathed, and rivuleted—with a Grand Sea view terminated by the black mountains of the Isle of Arran. As soon as I saw them so nearly I said to myself, “How is it they did not beckon Burns to some grand attempt at an Epic.”’ Nearing Kirk Alloway, Keats had been delighted to find the first home of Burns in a landscape so charming. ‘I endeavoured to drink in the Prospect, that I might spin it out to you, as the Silkworm makes silk from Mulberry leaves—I cannot recollect it.’ But his anticipations were deceived, the whole scene disenchanted, and thoughts of Burns’s misery forced on him in his own despite, by the presence and chatter of the man in charge of the poet’s birthplace:—

The Man at the Cottage was a great Bore with his Anecdotes—I hate the rascal—his life consists in fuz, fuzzy, fuzziest. He drinks glasses five for the Quarter and twelve for the hour—he is a mahogany-faced old Jackass who knew Burns. He ought to have been kicked for having spoken to him. He calls himself ‘a curious old Bitch’—but he is a flat old dog—I should like to employ Caliph Vathek to kick him. O the flummery of a birthplace! Cant! cant! cant! It is enough to give a spirit the guts-ache. Many a true word, they say, is spoken in jest—this may be because his gab hindered my sublimity: the flat dog made me write a flat sonnet. My dear Reynolds—I cannot write about scenery and visitings—Fancy is indeed less than a present palpable reality, but it is greater than remembrance—you would lift your eyes from Homer only to see close before you the real Isle of Tenedos—you would rather readHomer afterwards than remember yourself. One song of Burns’s is of more worth to you than all I could think for a whole year in his native country. His Misery is a dead weight upon the nimbleness of one’s quill—I tried to forget it—to drink Toddy without any Care—to write a merry sonnet—it won’t do—he talked with Bitches—he drank with blackguards, he was miserable. We can see horribly clear, in the works of such a Man his whole life, as if we were God’s spies.4 What were his addresses to Jean in the latter part of his life?

A little farther back Keats had written, ‘my head is sometimes in such a whirl in considering the million likings and antipathies of our Moments that I can get into no settled strain in my Letters.’ But their straggling, careless tissue is threaded with such strands of genius and fresh human wisdom that one often wonders whether they are not legacies of this rare young spirit equally precious with the poems themselves. Certainly their prose is better than most of the verse which he had strength or leisure to write during this Scottish tour. As the two friends tramped among the Highland mountains some days later Keats composed with considerable pains (as Brown particularly mentions) the lines beginning ‘There is a charm in footing slow across a silent plain,’ intended to express the temper in which his pilgrimage through and beyond the Burns country had been made. They are written in the long iambic fourteeners of Chapman’s Iliad, a metre not touched by Keats elsewhere, and perhaps chosen to convey a sense of the sustained continuous trudge of his wayfaring. They are very interesting as an attempt to capture and fix in words certain singular, fluctuating intensities of the poet’s mood—the pressure of a great and tragic memory absorbing his whole consciousness and deadening all sense of outward things as he nears the place of pilgrimage—and afterwards his momentary panic lest the spell of mighty scenery and associations may be too overpowering and drag his soul adrift from its moorings of every-day habit and affection—from the ties of ‘the sweet and bitter world’—‘of Brother’s eyes, of Sister’s brow.’ In some of the lines expressing these obscure disturbances of the soul there is a deep smouldering fire, but hardly ever that touch of absolute felicity which is the note of Keats’s work when he is quite himself. The best, technically speaking, are those which tell of the pilgrim’s absorbed mood of expectant approach to his goal:—

Light heather-bells may tremble then but they are far away;
Wood-lark may sing from sandy fern,—the Sun may hear his lay;
Runnels may kiss the grass on shelves and shallows clear,
But their low voices are not heard, though come on travels drear;
Blood-red the Sun may set behind black mountain peaks;
Blue tides may sluice and drench their time in caves and weedy creeks;
Eagles may seem to sleep wing-wide upon the air;
Ring-doves may fly convuls’d across to some high-cedar’d lair;
But the forgotten eye is still fast lidded to the ground,
As Palmer’s, that with weariness, mid-desert shrine hath found.
At such a time the soul’s a child, in childhood is the brain;
Forgotten is the worldly heart—alone, it beats in vain.—(5)

Keats makes it clear that he did not write these lines until some days after he had left Burns’s country and was well on into the heart of the Highlands, and we get what reads like the prose of some of them in a letter written to Tom on the last stage of his walk before reaching Oban. Meantime the friends had passed through Glasgow, of which they had nothing to say except that they were taken, not for the first time, for pedlars by reason of their knapsacks, and Brown in particular for a spectacle-seller by reason of his glasses, and that the whole population seemed to have turned out to stare at them. A drunken man in the street, accosting Keats with true Glaswegian lack of ceremony, vowed he had seen all kinds of foreigners but never the like o’ him: a remark perhaps not to be wondered at when we recall Mrs Dilke’s description of Keats’s appearance when he came home (see the end of this chapter) and Brown’s account of his own weird toggery as follows:—‘a thick stick in my hand, the knapsack on my back, “with spectacles on nose,” a white hat, a tartan coat and trousers and a Highland plaid thrown over my shoulders.’ From Glasgow they walked by Dumbarton through the Loch Lomond country, round the head of Loch Fyne to Inverary, thence down the side and round the south-west end of Loch Awe and so past the head of Loch Craignish to the coast. At his approach to the lower end of Loch Lomond Keats had thought the scene ‘precious good;’ but his sense of romance was disturbed by finding it so frequented. ‘Steamboats on Loch Lomond and Barouches on its sides take a little from the pleasure of such romantic chaps as Brown and I.’ If the scene were to be peopled he would prefer that it were by another kind of denizen. ‘The Evening was beautiful nothing could surpass our fortune in the weather—yet was I worldly enough to wish for a fleet of chivalry Barges with Trumpets and Banners just to die away before me into that blue place among the mountains’—and here follows a little sketch of the narrow upper end of the lake from near Tarbet, just to show where the blue place was. At Inverary Keats has a word about the woods which reminds one of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan—‘the woods seem old enough to remember two or three changes in the Crags above them’—and then goes on to tell how he has been amused and exasperated by a performance of The Stranger to an accompaniment of bagpipe music. Bathing in Loch Fyne the next morning, he got horribly bitten by gad-flies, and vented his smart in a set of doggrel rhymes. Of all these matters he gossips gaily for the entertainment of the invalid Tom. Turning on the same day to write to Benjamin Bailey, the most serious-minded of his friends, he proceeds in a strain of considerate self-knowledge to confess and define some of the morbid elements in his own nature. That Bailey may be warned against taking any future complainings of his too seriously, ‘I carry all matters,’ he says, ‘to an extreme—so that when I have any little vexation, it grows in five minutes into a theme for Sophocles.’ And then by way of accounting for his having failed of late to see much of the Reynolds sisters in Little Britain, he lays bare his reasons for thinking himself unfit for ordinary society and especially for the society of women:—

I am certain I have not a right feeling towards women—at this moment I am striving to be just to them, but I cannot. Is it because they fall so far beneath my boyish imagination? When I was a schoolboy I thought a fair woman a pure Goddess, my mind was a soft nest in which some one of them slept, though she knew it not. I have no right to expect more than their reality—I thought them ethereal above men—I find them perhaps equal—great by comparison is very small. Insult may be inflicted in more ways than by word or action. One who is tender of being insulted does not like to think an insult against another. I do not like to think insults in a lady’s company—I commit a crime with her which absence would not have known…. I must absolutely get over this—but how? the only way is to find the root of the evil, and so cure it ‘with backward mutters of dissevering power’—that is a difficult thing; for an obstinate Prejudice can seldom be produced but from a gordian complication of feelings, which must take time to unravel, and care to keep unravelled.

And then, as to his present doings and impressions:—

I should not have consented to myself these four months tramping in the highlands, but that I thought it would give me more experience, rub off more prejudice, use me to more hardships, identify finer scenes, load me with grander mountains, and strengthen more my reach in Poetry, than would stopping at home among books, even though I should reach Homer. By this time I am comparatively a Mountaineer. I have been among wilds and mountains too much to break out much about their grandeur. I have fed upon oat-cake—not long enough to be very much attached to it.—The first mountains I saw, though not so large as some I have since seen, weighed very solemnly upon me. The effect is wearing away—yet I like them mainly.

The word ‘identify’ in the above is noticeable, as seeming to imply that the fruit of his travel was not discovery, but only the recognition of scenes already fully preconceived in his imagination. Resuming his letter to Tom at a later stage, he tells of things that have impressed him: how in Glencroe (6) they had been pleased with the noise of shepherds’ sheep and dogs in the misty heights close above them, but could see none of them for some time, till two came in sight ‘creeping among the crags like Emmets,’ yet their voices plainly audible: how solemn was the first sight of Loch Awe as they approached it ‘along a complete mountain road’ (that is by way of Glen Aray) ‘where if one listened there was not a sound but that of mountain streams’; how they tramped twenty miles by the loch side and how the next day they had reached the coast within view of Long Island (that is Luing; the spot was probably Kilmelfort). It is at this point we get the prose of some of the lines quoted above from the verses expressing the temper of his pilgrimage:—

Our walk was of this description—the near Hills were not very lofty but many of them steep, beautifully wooded—the distant Mountains in the Hebrides very grand, the Saltwater Lakes coming up between Crags and Islands full tide and scarcely ruffled—sometimes appearing as one large Lake sometimes as three distinct ones in different directions. At one point we saw afar off a rocky opening into the main sea.—We have also seen an Eagle or two. They move about without the least motion of Wings when in an indolent fit.

At the same point occur for the first time complaints, slight at first, of fatigue and discomfort. At the beginning of his tour Keats had written to his sister of its effects upon his appetite: ‘I get so hungry a ham goes but a very little way and fowls are like larks to me…. I can eat a bull’s head as easily as I used to do bull’s eyes.’ Some days later he writes that he is getting used to it, and doing his twenty miles or more a day without inconvenience. But now, in the remoter parts of the Highlands, the hard accommodation and monotonous diet and rough journeys and frequent drenchings begin to tell upon both him and Brown:—

Last night poor Brown with his feet blistered and scarcely able to walk, after a trudge of 20 Miles down the side of Loch Awe had no supper but Eggs and oat Cake—we have lost the sight of white bread entirely—Now we had eaten nothing but eggs all day—about 10 a piece and they had become sickening—To-day we have fared rather better—but no oat Cake wanting—we had a small chicken and even a good bottle of Port but altogether the fare is too coarse—I feel it a little.

Our travellers seem to have felt the hardships of the Highlands more than either Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy when they visited the same scenes just fifteen years earlier, or Lockhart and his brother in their expedition, only three years before, to the loneliest wilds of Lochaber. But then the Wordsworth party only walked when they wished, and drove much of the way in their ramshackle jaunting-car; and the Lockharts, being fishermen, had their rods, and had besides brought portable soup with them and a horse to carry their kit. Lockhart’s account of his experience is in curious contrast with those of Keats and Brown:—

We had a horse with us for the convenience of carrying baggage—but contemning the paths of civilized man, we dared the deepest glens in search of trout. There is something abundantly delightful in the warmheartedness of the Highland people. Bating the article of inquisitiveness, they are as polite as courtiers. The moment we entered a cottage the wife began to bake her cakes—and having portable soup with us, our fare was really excellent. What think you of porritch and cream for breakfast? trout, pike, and herrings for dinner, and right peat-reek whisky?

Arrived at Oban by way of the Melfort pass and Glen Euchar, the friends undertook one journey in especial which proved too much for Keats’s strength. Finding the regular tourist route by water to Staffa and Iona too expensive for their frugal scheme of travel, they were persuaded to take the ferry to the isle of Kerrera and thence on to the hither shore of Mull. Did Keats in crossing Kerrera hear of—he would scarcely have travelled out of his way to visit—the ruins of the castle of Goylen on its precipice above the sea, with its legend of the girl-child, unaccountably puny as was thought, who turned out to be really the fairy mistress of a gentleman of Ireland, and being detected as such threw herself headlong from the window into the waves? and was this scene with its story in his mind when he wrote of forlorn fairy lands where castle casements open on the foam of perilous seas? (7) From the landing place in Mull they had to take a guide and traverse on foot the whole width of the island to the extreme point of the Ross of Mull opposite Iona: a wretched walk, as Keats calls it, of some thirty-seven miles, over difficult ground and in the very roughest weather, broken by one night’s rest in a shepherd’s hut at a spot he calls Dun an Cullen,—perhaps for Derrynacullen. Having crossed the narrow channel to Iona and admired the antiquities of that illustrious island (the epithet is Johnson’s), they chartered a fresh boat for the trip to Staffa and thence up Loch na Keal, so landing on the return journey in the heart of Mull and shortening their walk back across the island by more than half. By the power of the past and its associations among the monastic ruins of Iona, and of nature’s architecture in building and scooping the basaltic columns of Fingal’s Cave, Keats shows himself naturally impressed. In this instance, and once or twice afterwards, he exerts himself to write a full and precise description for the benefit of his brother Tom. In doing so he uses a phrase which indicates a running of his thoughts upon his projected poem, Hyperion:—

The finest thing is Fingal’s cave—it is entirely a hollowing out of Basalt Pillars. Suppose now the Giants who rebelled against Jove had taken a whole Mass of black Columns and bound them together like bunches of matches—and then with immense Axes had made a cavern in the body of these Columns—of course the roof and floor must be composed of the broken ends of the Columns—such is Fingal’s cave except that the Sea has done the work of excavations and is continually dashing there—so that we walk along the sides of the cave on the pillars which are left as if for convenient stairs—the roof is arched somewhat gothic-wise and the length of some of the entire side-pillars is 50 feet…. The colour of the columns is a sort of black with a lurking gloom of purple therein. For solemnity and grandeur it far surpasses the finest Cathedral.

More characteristically than this description, some verses he sends at the same time tell how Fingal’s cave and its profanation by the race of tourists affected him: I mean those beginning ‘Not Aladdin Magian,’ written in the seven-syllable metre which he handled almost as well as his sixteenth and seventeenth century masters, from Fletcher and Ben Jonson to the youthful Milton. Avoiding word-painting and description, like the born poet he is, he begins by calling up for comparison visions of other fanes or palaces of enchantment, and then, bethinking himself of Milton’s cry to Lycidas,

where’er thy bones are hurl’d,
Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides—

he imagines that lost one to have been found by the divinity of Ocean and put by him in charge of this cathedral of his building. In his priestly character Lycidas tells his latter-day visitant of the religion of the place, complains of the violation of its solitude, and then dives suddenly from view. In the six lines which tell of the scene’s profanation the style sinks with the theme into flat triviality:—

So for ever will I leave
Such a taint and soon unweave
All the magic of the place,
Tis now free to stupid face,
To cutters and to Fashion boats,
To cravats and to Petticoats:—
The great sea shall war it down,
For its fame shall not be blown
At each farthing Quadrille dance.
So saying with a Spirit glance
He dived—.

From the exertion and exposure which he underwent on his Scottish tour, and especially in this Mull expedition, are to be traced the first distinct and settled symptoms of failure in Keats’s health, which by reason of his muscular vigour had to his friends hitherto seemed so robust, and of the development of his hereditary tendency to consumption. In the same letter to his brother Tom which contains the transcript of the Fingal poem he speaks of a ‘slight sore throat,’—Brown calls it a violent cold,—which compelled him to rest for a day or two at Oban. Thence they pushed on in broken weather by Ballachulish and the shore of Loch Linnhe to Fort William, and from thence groped and struggled up Ben Nevis, a toilsome climb at best, in a dissolving mist. Once again Keats makes an exceptional endeavour to realise the scene in words for his brother’s benefit, telling of the continual shifting and opening and closing and re-opening of the cloud veils about them; and to clench his effect adds, ‘There is not a more fickle thing than the top of a Mountain—what would a Lady give to change her headdress as often and with as little trouble?’ Seated, so Brown tells us, almost on the edge of a precipice of fifteen hundred feet drop, Keats composed a sonnet, above his worst but much below his best, turning the experience of the hour into a simple enough symbol of his own mental state in face of the great mysteries of things:—Keats evidently, and no wonder, did not like those six lines from ‘Tis now free’ to ‘dance’: in transcripts by his friends they are dropped out or inserted only in pencil: but he apparently did not see his way to mend them, and Brown tells us he could never persuade him to finish or resume the poem. In the broken close as he left it there is after all an appropriate abruptness which may content us.

Read me a lesson, Muse, and speak it loud
Upon the top of Nevis, blind in mist!
I look into the chasms, and a shroud
Vap’rous doth hide them,—just so much I wist
Mankind do know of hell; I look o’erhead,
And there is sullen mist,—even so much
Mankind can tell of heaven; mist is spread
Before the earth, beneath me,—even such,
Even so vague is man’s sight of himself!
Here are the craggy stones beneath my feet,—
Thus much I know that, a poor witless elf,
I tread on them,—that all my eye doth meet
Is mist and crag, not only on this height,
But in the world of thought and mental might!

Keats’s throat had for some time been getting worse: the ascent, and especially the descent, of Ben Nevis had, as he confesses, shaken and tried him: feverish symptoms set in, and the doctor whom he consulted at Inverness thought his condition seriously threatening, and forbad him to continue his tour. Accordingly he gave up the purpose with which he had set out of footing it southward by a different route, seeing Edinburgh, and on his way home visiting Bailey at his curacy in Cumberland, and decided to take passage at once for London by the next packet from Cromarty. Dilke had in the meantime felt compelled to write and recall him on account of a sudden change for the worse in the condition of the invalid Tom, so that his tour with Brown would have been cut short in any case. On their way round the head of Beauly Firth to Cromarty the friends did not miss the opportunity of visiting the ruins of Beauly Abbey. The interior was then and for long afterwards used as a burial place and receptacle for miscellaneous rubbish. Their attention being drawn to a heap of skulls which they took, probably on the information of some local guide, for skulls of ancient monks of the Abbey, they jointly composed upon them a set of verses in Burns’s favourite measure (but without, this time, any attempt at his dialect). Unluckily Brown wrote the lion’s share of the piece and set the tone of the whole. To the sixteen stanzas Keats contributed, as he afterwards informed Woodhouse, only the first line-and-a-half of the first stanza, with three of the later stanzas entire. As the piece has never been published and is a new document in the history of the tour, it seems to call for insertion here: but in view of its length and lack of quality (for it has nowhere a touch of Keats’s true magic) I choose rather to relegate it to an appendix.Hearing of a previous ascent by a Mrs Cameron, ‘the fattest woman in all Invernesshire,’ he had the energy to compose also for Tom’s amusement a comic dialogue in verse between the mountain and the lady, much more in Brown’s vein than in his own. By the 6th of August the travellers had reached Inverness, having tramped, as Brown calculates, six hundred and forty-two miles since leaving Lancaster.

It was on the eighth or ninth of August that the smack for London put out from Cromarty with Keats on board, and Brown, having bidden him goodbye, was left to finish the tour alone—‘much lamenting,’ says he, ‘the loss of his beloved companionship at my side.’ Keats in some degree picked up strength during a nine days’ sea passage, the humours of which he afterwards described pleasantly in a letter to his brother George. But his throat trouble, the premonitory sign of worse, never really or for any length of time left him afterwards. On the 18th of August he arrived at Hampstead, and made his appearance among his friends the next day, ‘as brown and as shabby as you can imagine,’ writes Mrs Dilke, ‘scarcely any shoes left, his jacket all torn at the back, a fur cap, a great plaid, and his knapsack. I cannot tell what he looked like.’ When he found himself seated, for the first time after his hardships, in a comfortable stuffed chair, we are told how he expressed a comic enjoyment of the sensation, quoting at himself the words in which Quince the carpenter congratulates his gossip the weaver on his metamorphosis.

(1) This account was published in The Plymouth and Devonport Weekly Journal, beginning October 1, 1840, but was unluckily stopped after the fourth number and carries us no farther than to Ballantrae on the Ayrshire coast. I believe this is the first time that it has been used or quoted.

(2) Does the reader remember how in a similar scene from the other side of the Solway, in Scott’s Redgauntlet, Dame Martin, leading the dance, ‘frisked like a kid, snapped her fingers like castanets, whooped like a Bacchanal, and bounded from the floor like a tennis ball’?

(3) It is interesting to note that the present poet laureate has found something in this piece entitling it to a place in his severely sifted anthology, The Spirit of Man.

(4) The words are King Lear’s (act v, sc. iii).

(5)This metre is essentially the same as the ‘common’ measure, eight and six, of the hymn-books, only printed out in single lines to be spoken without—or with only very slight—pause. At the point quoted Keats varies it, whether carelessly or on purpose, and the first lines of three successive couplets, beginning from ‘Runnels,’ etc., are not in fourteeners but in twelves or Alexandrines (=’short measure,’ six and six, printed out). A similar variation is frequent in early examples of the metre.

(6) Printed in error ‘Glenside’ in all the editions: but the MS. is quite clear, and even were it not so topography would require Glencroe.

(7) See John Campbell of Islay, Popular Tales of the West Highlands (1860), vol. ii, p. 52. I owe the suggestion and the reference to my friend Prof. W. P. Ker. Personally I have always associated the magic casements with the Enchanted Castle of Claude’s picture representing a very different scene. But the poet’s mind is a crucible made for extracting from ingredients no matter how heterogeneous the quintessence, the elixir, which it needs.

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