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CHAPTER V (About John Keats by Sidney Colvin)
APRIL-DECEMBER 1817: WORK ON ENDYMION
‘Poems’ fall flat—Reviews by Hunt and others—Change of publishers—New friends: Bailey and Woodhouse—Begins Endymion at Carisbrooke—Moves to Margate—Hazlitt and Southey—Hunt and Haydon—Ambition and self-doubt—Stays at Canterbury—Joins brothers at Hampstead—Dilke and Brown—Visits Bailey at Oxford—Work on Endymion—Bailey’s testimony—Talk on Wordsworth—Letters from Oxford—To his sister Fanny—To Jane and J.H. Reynolds—Return to Hampstead—Friends at loggerheads—Stays at Burford Bridge—Correspondence—Confessions—Speculations—Imagination and truth—Composes various lyrics—‘O love me truly’—‘In drear-nighted December’—Dryden and Swinburne—Endymion finished—An Autumnal close—Return to Hampstead.
Keats’s first volume had been launched, to quote the words of Cowden Clarke, ‘amid the cheers and fond anticipations of all his circle. Everyone of us expected (and not unreasonably) that it would create a sensation in the literary world.’ The magniloquent Haydon words these expectations after his manner:—‘I have read your Sleep and Poetry—it is a flash of lightning that will rouse men from their occupations and keep them trembling for the crash of thunder that will follow.’ Sonnets poured in on the occasion, and not from intimates only. I have already quoted (p. 75) one which Reynolds, familiar with the contents of the forthcoming book, wrote a few days before its publication to welcome it and at the same time to congratulate Keats on his sonnet written in Clarke’s copy of the Floure and the Lefe. Leigh Hunt, always delighted to repay compliment with compliment, replied effusively in kind to the sonnet in which Keats had dedicated the volume to him. Richard Woodhouse, of whom we shall soon hear more but who was as yet a stranger, in the closing lines of a sonnet addressed to Apollo, welcomed Keats as the last born son of that divinity and the herald of his return to lighten the poetic darkness of the land:—
Have these thy glories perish’d? or in scorn
Of thankless man hath thy race ceased to quire?
O no! thou hear’st! for lo! the beamèd morn
Chases our night of song: and, from the lyre
Waking long dormant sounds, Keats, thy last born,
To the glad realm proclaims the coming of his sire.
Sonnets are not often addressed by publishers to their clients: but one has been found in the handwriting of Charles Ollier, and almost certainly composed by him, expressing admiration for Keats’s work. The brothers Ollier, it will be remembered, were Shelley’s publishers, and for a while also Leigh Hunt’s and Lamb’s, and Charles was the poetry-loving and enthusiastic brother of the two, and himself a writer of some accomplishment in prose and verse. But in point of fact, outside the immediate Leigh Hunt circle, the volume made extremely little impression, and the public was as far as possible from being roused from its occupations or made tremble. ‘Alas!’ continues Cowden Clarke, ‘the book might have emerged in Timbuctoo with far stronger chance of fame and appreciation. The whole community as if by compact, seemed determined to know nothing about it.’
Clarke here somewhat exaggerates the facts. Leigh Hunt kept his own review of the volume back for some three months, very likely with the just idea that praise from him might prejudice Keats rather than serve him. At length it appeared, in three numbers of the Examiner for June and July, the first number setting forth the aims and tendencies of the new movement in poetry with a conscious clearness such as to those taking part in a collective, three-parts instinctive effort of the kind comes usually in retrospect only and not in the thick of the struggle. In the second and third notices Hunt speaks of the old graces of poetry reappearing, warns ‘this young writer of genius’ against disproportionate detail and a too revolutionary handling of metre, and after quotation winds up by calling the volume ‘a little luxuriant heap of
Such sights as youthful poets dream
On summer eves by haunted stream.’
Two at least of the established critical reviews noticed the book at length, Constable’s Scots and Edinburgh Magazine, and the Eclectic Review, the chief organ of lettered nonconformity, owned and edited by the busy dissenting poet and bookseller Josiah Conder. Both criticisms are of the preaching and admonishing kind then almost universally in fashion. The Scottish reviewer recognizes in the new poet a not wholly unsuccessful disciple of Spenser, but warns him against ‘the appalling doom which awaits the faults of mannerism or the ambition of a sickly refinement,’ and with reference to his association with the person and ideas of Hazlitt and Hunt declares that ‘if Mr Keats does not forthwith cast off the uncleanness of this school, he will never make his way to the truest strain of poetry in which, taking him by himself, it appears he might succeed.’ The preachment of the Eclectic is still more pompous and superior. There are mild words of praise for some of the sonnets, but none for that on Chapman’s Homer. Sleep and Poetry, declares the critic, would seem to show of the writer that ‘he is indeed far gone, beyond the reach of the efficacy of either praise or censure, in affectation and absurdity. Seriously, however, we regret that a young man of vivid imagination and fine talents should have fallen into so bad hands as to have been flattered into the resolution to publish verses, of which a few years hence he will be glad to escape from the remembrance.’
Notices such as this could not help a new writer to fame or his book to sale. But before they appeared Keats and his brothers, or they for him, had begun to fret at the failure of the volume and to impute it, as authors and their friends will, to some mishandling by the publishers. George in John’s absence wrote to the Olliers taking them to task pretty roundly, and received the often-quoted reply drafted, let us hope, not by the sonneteer but by James Ollier, his business brother, and alleging of the work that—
By far the greater number of persons who have purchased it from us have found fault with it in such plain terms, that we have in many cases offered to take it back rather than be annoyed with the ridicule which has, time after time, been showered upon it. In fact, it was only on Saturday last that we were under the mortification of having our own opinion of its merits flatly contradicted by a gentleman, who told us he considered it ‘no better than a take in.’
Meanwhile Keats had found other publishers ready to take up his next work, and destined to become his staunch and generous friends. These were Messrs Taylor and Hessey of 93 Fleet Street. John Taylor, the chief partner, was a man of high character and considerable attainments, who had come up from Nottinghamshire to open a business in London ten years earlier. He was already noted as an authority on Junius and was to be a little later the editor as well as publisher of the London Magazine, and the good friend and frequent entertainer (in the back parlour of the publishing house in Fleet Street) of his most distinguished contributors. How and through whom Keats was introduced to his firm is not quite clear: probably through Benjamin Bailey, a new acquaintance whom we know to have been a friend of Taylor’s. Bailey was an Oxford man five years older than Keats. He had been an undergraduate of Trinity and was now staying up at Magdalen Hall to read for orders. He was an ardent student of poetry and general literature as well as of theology, a devout worshipper of Milton, and scarcely less of Wordsworth, with whom he had some personal acquaintance. Of his appetite for books Keats wrote when they had come to know each other well: ‘I should not like to be pages in your way; when in a tolerably hungry mood you have no mercy. Your teeth are the Rock Tarpeian down which you capsize epic poems like mad. I would not for forty shillings be Coleridge’s Lays [i.e. Lay Sermons] in your way.’ Bailey was intimate with John Hamilton Reynolds and his family, and at this time a suitor for the hand of his sister Marianne. In the course of the winter 1816-17 Reynolds had written to him enthusiastically of Keats’s poetical promise and personal charm. When at the beginning of March Keats’s volume came out, Bailey was much struck, and on a visit to London called to make the new poet’s acquaintance. Though it was not until a few months later that this acquaintance ripened into close friendship, it may well have been Bailey who recommended Keats and Taylor to each other.
Relations of business or friendship with Taylor necessarily involved relations with Richard Woodhouse, a lettered and accomplished young solicitor of twenty-nine who was an intimate friend of Taylor’s and at this time apparently the regular reader and adviser to the firm. Woodhouse was sprung from an old landed stock in Herefordshire, some of whose members were now in the wine-trade (his father, it seems, was owner or part owner of the White Hart at Bath). He had been educated at Eton but not at the university: his extant correspondence, as well as notes and version-books in his hand, show him to have been a good linguist in Spanish and Italian and a man of remarkably fine literary taste and judgment. He afterwards held a high position as a solicitor and was one of the founders of the Law Life Insurance Society.
These three new friendships, with Benjamin Bailey, John Taylor, and Richard Woodhouse, formed during the six weeks between the publication of his book (March 3) and the mid-April following, turned out to be among the most valuable of Keats’s life, and were the best immediate results the issue of his first volume brought him. During this interval he and his brothers were lodging at 17 Cheapside, having left their old quarters in the Poultry. Some time in March it was decided, partly on Haydon’s urging, that John should for the sake of quiet and self-improvement go and spend some time by himself in the country, and try to get to work upon his great meditated Endymion poem. He writes as much to Reynolds, concluding with an adaptation from Falstaff expressive of anxiety for the health of some of those dear to him—probably his brother Tom and James Rice:—
My brothers are anxious that I should go by myself into the country—they have always been extremely fond of me, and now that Haydon has pointed out how necessary it is that I should be alone to improve myself, they give up the temporary pleasure of living with me continually for a great good which I hope will follow. So I shall soon be out of Town. You must soon bring all your present troubles to a close, and so must I, but we must, like the Fox, prepare for a fresh swarm of flies. Banish money—Banish sofas—Banish Wine—Banish Music; but right Jack Health, honest Jack Health, true Jack Health—Banish Health and banish all the world.
On the 14th of April Keats took the night mail for Southampton, whence he writes next day a lively letter to his brothers. By the 17th, having looked at Shanklin and decided against it, he was installed in a lodging at Carisbrooke. Writing to Reynolds he gives the reasons for his choice, mentioning at the same time that he is feeling rather nervous from want of sleep, and enclosing the admirable sonnet On the Sea which he has just composed—
It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, etc.—
It was the intense haunting of the lines in the scene on Dover Cliff in King Lear beginning ‘Do you not hear the sea,’ which moved him, he says, to this effort. He was reading and re-reading his Shakespeare with passion, and phrases from the plays come up continually in his letters, not only, as in the following extract, in the form of set quotations, but currently, as though they were part of his own mind and being. Having found in the lodging-house passage an engraved head of Shakespeare which pleased him and hung it up in his room (his landlady afterwards made him a present of it), he bethinks him of the approaching anniversary, April 23:—
I’ll tell you what—on the 23d was Shakespeare born. Now if I should receive a letter from you, and another from my Brothers on that day ‘twould be a parlous good thing. Whenever you write say a word or two on some Passage in Shakespeare that may have come rather new to you, which must be continually happening, notwithstanding that we read the same Play forty times—for instance, the following from the Tempest never struck me so forcibly as at present,
Shall, for the vast of night that they may work,
All exercise on thee—
How can I help bringing to your mind the line—
In the dark backward and abysm of time.
I find I cannot exist without Poetry—without eternal Poetry—half the day will not do—the whole of it—I began with a little, but habit has made me a Leviathan I had become all in a Tremble from not having written anything of late—the Sonnet over-leaf did me good. I slept the better last night for it—this Morning, however, I am nearly as bad again. Just now I opened Spenser, and the first Lines I saw were these—
The noble heart that harbours virtuous thought,
And is with child of glorious great intent,
Can never rest until it forth have brought
Th’ eternal brood of glory excellent.
‘I shall forthwith begin my Endymion,’ he adds, and looks forward to reading some of it out, when his correspondent comes to visit him, in a nook near the castle which he has already marked for the purpose.
But Haydon’s prescription of solitude turned out the worst Keats could well have followed in the then state of his mind, fermenting with a thousand restless thoughts and inchoate imaginations and with the feverish conflict between ambition and self-distrust. The result at any rate was that he passed the time, to use his own words, ‘in continual burning of thought, as an only resource,’ and what with that and lack of proper food felt himself after a week or ten days ‘not over capable in his upper stories’ and in need of change and companionship. He made straight for his last year’s lodging at Margate and got Tom to join him there. Thence in the second week of May he writes a long letter to Hunt and another to Haydon. To Hunt he criticizes some points in the last number of the Examiner, and especially, in his kind-hearted, well-conditioned way, deprecates a certain vicious allusion to grey hairs in an attack of Hazlitt upon Southey. Later on we shall have to tell of the critical savagery of Blackwood and the Quarterly, now long since branded and proverbial. But it should be borne in mind, as it by no means always is, that the Tories were far from having the savagery to themselves. When Hazlitt, for one, chose to strike on the liberal side, he could match Gifford or Lockhart or Wilson or Maginn with their own weapons. To realize the controversial atmosphere of the time, here is a passage, and not the fiercest, from the Hazlitt article in which Keats found too venomous a sting. Southey’s first love, rails Hazlitt, had been the Republic, his second was Legitimacy, ‘her more fortunate and wealthy rival’:—
He is becoming uxorious in his second matrimonial connection; and though his false Duessa has turned out a very witch, a murderess, a sorceress, perjured, and a harlot, drunk with insolence, mad with power, a griping rapacious wretch, bloody, luxurious, wanton, malicious, not sparing steel, or poison, or gold, to gain her ends—bringing famine, pestilence, and death in her train—infecting the air with her thoughts, killing the beholders with her looks, claiming mankind as her property, and using them as her slaves—driving every thing before her, and playing the devil wherever she comes, Mr Southey sticks to her in spite of everything, and for very shame lays his head in her lap, paddles with the palms of her hands, inhales her hateful breath, leers in her eyes and whispers in her ears, calls her little fondling names, Religion, Morality, and Social Order, takes for his motto,
Be to her faults a little blind,
Be to her virtues very kind—
sticks close to his filthy bargain, and will not give her up, because she keeps him, and he is down in her will. Faugh!
It is fair to note that the mistress thus depicted as Southey’s is an allegorical being, while the Blackwood scurrilities were often directly personal.
After asking how Hunt’s own new poem, The Nymphs, is getting on, Keats tells how he has been writing some of Endymion every day the last fortnight, except travelling days, and how thoughts of the greatness of his ambition and the uncertainty of his powers have thrown him into a fit of gloom; hinting at such moods of bleak and blank despondency as we shall find now and again figuratively described in the text of Endymion itself.
I have asked myself so often why I should be a poet more than other men, seeing how great a thing it is,… that at last the idea has grown so monstrously beyond my seeming power of attainment that the other day I nearly consented with myself to drop into a Phaeton … I see nothing but continual uphill journeying. Now is there anything more unpleasant than to be so journeying and to miss the goal at last? But I intend to whistle all those cogitations into the sea, where I hope they will breed storms enough to block up all exit from Russia. Does Shelley go on telling strange stories of the deaths of kings? (1) Tell him there are strange stories of the deaths of poets. Some have died before they were conceived.
The same evening Keats begins to answer a letter of encouragement and advice he had just had from Haydon. This is the letter of Haydon’s from which I have already quoted the passage about the efficacy of prayer as Haydon had experienced it. Perfectly sincere and genuinely moved, he can never for a minute continuously steer clear of rant and fustian and self-praise at another’s expense.
Never despair, he goes on, while the path is open to you. By habitual exercise you will have habitual intercourse and constant companionship; and at every want turn to the Great Star of your hopes with a delightful confidence that will never be disappointed. I love you like my own brother: Beware, for God’s sake, of the delusions and sophistications that are ripping up the talents and morality of our friend. (2) He will go out of the world the victim of his own weakness and the dupe of his own self-delusions, with the contempt of his enemies and the sorrow of his friends, and the cause he undertook to support injured by his own neglect of character. I wish you would come up to town for a day or two that I may put your head in my picture. I have rubbed in Wordsworth’s, and advanced the whole. God bless you, my dear Keats! do not despair; collect incident, study character, read Shakespeare, and trust in Providence, and you will do, you must.
Keats in answer quotes the opening speech of the King in Love’s Labour’s Lost,—
Let Fame, that all pant after in their lives
Live registered upon our brazen tombs, etc.,
saying that he could not bear to think he had not the right to couple his own name with Haydon’s in such a forecast, and acknowledging the occasional moods of depression which have put him into such a state of mind as to read over his own lines and hate them, though he has picked up heart again when he found some from Pope’s Homer which Tom read out to him seem ‘like Mice’ to his own. He takes encouragement also from the notion that has visited him lately of some good genius—can it be Shakespeare?—presiding over him. Continuing the next day, he is downhearted again at hearing from George of money difficulties actual and prospective. ‘You tell me never to despair—I wish it was as easy for me to deserve the saying—truth is I have a horrid morbidity of Temperament which has shown itself at intervals it is I have no doubt the greatest Enemy and stumbling block I have to fear—I may even say it is likely to be the cause of my disappointment.’ Then referring to Haydon’s warning in regard to Hunt, he goes half way in agreement and declares he would die rather than be deceived about his own achievements as Hunt is. ‘There is no greater sin after the seven deadly,’ he says, ‘than to flatter oneself into the idea of being a great poet: the comfort is, such a crime must bring its own penalty, and if one is a self-deluder indeed accounts must one day be balanced.’
In the same week, moved no doubt by the difficulties George had mentioned about touching the funds due from their grandmother’s estate, Keats writes to Taylor and Hessey, in a lively and familiar strain showing the terms of confidence on which he already stood with them, asking them to advance him an instalment of the agreed price for Endymion. He mentions in this letter that he is tired of Margate (he had already to another correspondent called it a ‘treeless affair’) and means to move to Canterbury. At this point there occurs an unlucky gap in Keats’s correspondence. We know that he and Tom went to Canterbury from Margate as planned, but we do not know exactly when, nor how long he stayed there, nor what work he did (except that he was certainly going on with the first book of Endymion), nor what impressions he received. It was his first visit to a cathedral city, and few in the world, none in England, are more fitted to impress. Chichester and Winchester he came afterwards to know, Winchester well and with affection; but it was with thoughts of Canterbury in his mind that he planned, some two years later, first a serious and then a frivolous verse romance having an English cathedral town for scene (The Eve of St Mark, The Cap and Bells). The heroine of both was to have been a maiden of Canterbury called Bertha; not, of course, the historic Frankish princess Bertha, daughter of Haribert and wife of Ethelbert king of Kent, who converted her husband and prepared his people for Christianity before the landing of Saint Augustin, and who sleeps in the ancient church of Saint Martin outside the walls: not she, but some damsel of the city, named after her in later days, whom Keats had heard or read of or invented,—I would fain know which; but I have found no external evidence of his studies or doings during this spring stay at Canterbury, and his correspondence is, as I have said, a blank.
Some time in June he returned and the three brothers were together again: not now in City lodgings but in new quarters to which they had migrated in Well Walk, Hampstead. Their landlord was one Bentley the postman, with whom they seem to have got on well except that Keats occasionally complains of the ‘young carrots,’ his children, now for making a ‘horrid row,’ now for smelling of damp worsted stockings. The lack of letters continues through these first summer months at Hampstead. The only exception is a laughingly apologetic appeal to his new publishers for a further advance of money, dated June 10th and ending with the words,—‘I am sure you are confident of my responsibility, and of the sense of squareness that is always in me.’ For the rest, indirect evidence allows us to picture Keats in these months as working regularly at Endymion, having now reached the second book, and as living socially, not without a certain amount of convivial claret-drinking and racket, in the company of his brothers and of his friends and theirs. Leigh Hunt was still close by in the Vale of Health, and both in his circle and in Haydon’s London studio Keats was as welcome as ever. Reynolds and Rice were still his close intimates, and Reynolds’s sisters in Lamb’s Conduit Street almost like sisters of his own. He was scarcely less at home in the family of his sister-in-law that was to be, Georgiana Wylie. The faithful Severn and the faithful Haslam came up eagerly whenever they could to join the Hampstead party. An acquaintance he had already formed at Hunt’s with the Charles Dilkes and their friend Charles Brown, who lived as next-door neighbours at Wentworth Place, a double block of houses of their own building in a garden at the foot of the Heath, now ripened into friendship: that with Dilke rapidly, that with Brown, a Scotsman who by his own account held cannily aloof from Keats at first for fear of being thought to push, more slowly.
Charles Wentworth Dilke, by profession a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, by predilection a keen and painstaking literary critic and antiquary, had been stimulated 142 by the charm of Lamb’s famous volume of Specimens to work at the old English dramatic poets, and had recently (being now twenty-seven) brought out a set of volumes in continuation of Dodsley’s Old Plays. In matters political and social he was something of a radical doctrinaire and ‘Godwin-perfectibility man’ (the label is Keats’s), loving decision and positiveness in all things and being therein the very opposite of Keats, who by rooted instinct as well as choice allowed his mind to cherish uncertainties and to be a thoroughfare for all thoughts (the phrase is again his own). There were many but always friendly discussions between Keats and Dilke, and their mutual regard never failed. Charles Brown, Dilke’s contemporary, schoolfellow, and close friend, was a man of Scottish descent born in Lambeth, who had in early youth joined a business set up by an elder brother in Petersburg. The business quickly failing, he had returned to London and after some years of struggle inherited a modest competence from another brother. A lively, cultivated, moderately successful amateur in literature, journalism, and drama, he was in person bald and spectacled, and portly beyond his years though active and robust; in habits much of a trencher-man (‘a huge eater’ according to the abstemious Trelawny) and something of a viveur within his means; exactly strict in money matters, but otherwise far from a precisian in life or conversation; an ardent friend and genial companion, though cherishing some fixed unreasonable aversions: in a word, a truly Scottish blend of glowing warm-heartedness and ‘thrawn’ prejudice, of frank joviality and cautious dealing.
It was in these same weeks of June or July 1817, soon after the beginning of the Oxford vacation, that Benjamin Bailey again came to town and sought after and learned to delight in Keats’s company. He meant to go back and read at Oxford for the latter part of the vacation, and invited Keats to spend some weeks with him there. Keats accepted, and the visit, lasting from soon after mid August until the end of September, proved a happiness alike to host and guest. At this point our dearth of documents ceases. Bailey’s memoranda, though not put on paper till thirty years later, are vivid and informing, and Keats’s own correspondence during the visit is fairly full. I will take Bailey’s recollections first, and give them in his own words, seeing that they paint the writer almost as well as his subject; omitting only passages that seem to drag or interrupt. First comes the impression Keats made on him at the time of their introduction in the spring, and then his account of the days they spent together in Oxford.
I was delighted with the naturalness and simplicity of his character, and was at once drawn to him by his winning and indeed affectionate manner towards those with whom he was himself pleased. Nor was his personal appearance the least charm of a first acquaintance with the young poet. He bore, along with the strong impress of genius, much beauty of feature and countenance. His hair was beautiful—a fine brown, rather than auburn, I think, and if you placed your hand upon his head, the silken curls felt like the rich plumage of a bird. The eye was full and fine, and softened into tenderness, or beamed with a fiery brightness, according to the current of his thoughts and conversation. Indeed the form of his head was like that of a fine Greek statue:—and he realized to my mind the youthful Apollo, more than any head of a living man whom I have known.
At the commencement of the long vacation I was again in London, on my way to another part of the country: and it was my intention to return to Oxford early in the vacation for the purpose of reading. I saw much of Keats. And I invited him to return with me to Oxford, and spend as much time as he could afford with me in the silence and solitude of that beautiful place during the absence of the numerous members and students of the University. He accepted my offer, and we returned together. I think in August 1817. It was during this visit, and in my room, that he wrote the third book of Endymion…. His mode of composition is best described by recounting our habits of study for one day during the month he visited me at Oxford. He wrote, and I read, sometimes at the same table, and sometimes at separate desks or tables, from breakfast to the time of our going out for exercise,—generally two or three o’clock. He sat down to his task,—which was about 50 lines a day,—with his paper before him, and wrote with as much regularity, and apparently as much ease, as he wrote his letters…. Sometimes he fell short of his allotted task, but not often: and he would make it up another day. But he never forced himself. When he had finished his writing for the day, he usually read it over to me: and he read or wrote letters until we went for a walk. This was our habit day by day. The rough manuscript was written off daily, and with few erasures.
I remember very distinctly, though at this distance of time, his reading of a few passages; and I almost think I hear his voice, and see his countenance. Most vivid is my recollection of the following passage of the finest affecting story of the old man, Glaucus, which he read to me immediately after its composition:—
The old man raised his hoary head and saw
The wildered stranger—seeming not to see,
The features were so lifeless. Suddenly
He woke as from a trance; his snow white brows
Went arching up, and like two magic ploughs
Furrowed deep wrinkles in his forehead large,
Which kept as fixedly as rocky marge,
Till round his withered lips had gone a smile.
The lines I have italicised, are those which then forcibly struck me as peculiarly fine, and to my memory have ‘kept as fixedly as rocky marge.’ I remember his upward look when he read of the ‘magic ploughs,’ which in his hands have turned up so much of the rich soil of Fairyland.
When we had finished our studies for the day we took our walk, and sometimes boated on the Isis…. Once we took a longer excursion of a day or two, to Stratford upon Avon, to visit the birthplace of Shakespeare. We went of course to the house visited by so many thousands of all nations of Europe, and inscribed our names in addition to the ‘numbers numberless’ of those which literally blackened the walls. We also visited the Church, and were pestered with a commonplace showman of the place…. He was struck, I remember, with the simple statue there, which, though rudely executed, we agreed was most probably the best likeness of the many extant, but none very authentic, of Shakespeare.
His enjoyment was of that genuine, quiet kind which was a part of his gentle nature; deeply feeling what he truly enjoyed, but saying little. On our return to Oxford we renewed our quiet mode of life, until he finished the third Book of Endymion, and the time came that we must part; and I never parted with one whom I had known so short a time, with so much real regret and personal affection, as I did with John Keats, when he left Oxford for London at the end of September or the beginning of October 1817.
Life-mask of Keats
Living as we did for a month or six weeks together (for I do not remember exactly how long) I knew him at that period of his life, perhaps as well as any one of his friends. There was no reserve of any kind between us…. His brother George says of him that to his brothers his temper was uncertain; and he himself confirms this judgment of him in a beautiful passage of a letter to myself. But with his friends, a sweeter tempered man I never knew. Gentleness was indeed his proper characteristic, without one particle of dullness, or insipidity, or want of spirit. Quite the contrary. ‘He was gentle but not fearful,’ in the chivalric and moral sense of the term ‘gentle.’ He was pleased with every thing that occurred in the ordinary mode of life, and a cloud never passed over his face, except of indignation at the wrongs of others.
His conversation was very engaging. He had a sweet toned voice, ‘an excellent thing’ in man as well as ‘in woman….’ In his letters he talks of suspecting everybody. It appeared not in his conversation. On the contrary, he was uniformly the apologist for poor, frail human nature, and allowed for people’s faults more than any man I ever knew, especially for the faults of his friends. But if any act of wrong or oppression, of fraud or falsehood, was the topic, he rose into sudden and animated indignation. He had a truly poetic feeling for women; and he often spoke to me of his sister, who was somehow withholden from him, with great delicacy and tenderness of affection. He had a soul of noble integrity: and his common sense was a conspicuous part of his character. Indeed his character was in the best sense manly.
Our conversation rarely or never flagged, during our walks, or boatings, or in the evening. And I have retained a few of his opinions on Literature and criticism which I will detail. The following passage from Wordsworth’s Ode on Immortality was deeply felt by Keats, who however at this time seemed to me to value this great Poet rather in particular passages than in the full-length portrait, as it were, of the great imaginative and philosophic Christian Poet, which he really is, and which Keats obviously, not long afterwards, felt him to be.
Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise;
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a creature
Moving about in worlds not realized,
High instincts, before which our mortal nature
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprized.
The last lines he thought were quite awful in their application to a guilty finite creature, like man, in the appalling nature of the feeling which they suggested to a thoughtful mind. Again, we often talked of that noble passage in the lines on Tintern Abbey:—
That blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
And his references to this passage are frequent in his letters.—But in those exquisite stanzas,
She dwelt among the untrodden ways,
Beside the springs of Dove,
She lived unknown and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and oh,
The difference to me.
The simplicity of the last line he declared to be the most perfect pathos.
Among the qualities of high poetic promise in Keats was, even at this time, his correct taste. I remember to have been struck with this by his remarks on that well known and often quoted passage of the Excursion upon the Greek Mythology—where it is said that
Even from the blazing chariot of the Sun
A beardless youth who touched a golden lute,
And filled the illumined groves with ravishment.
Keats said this description of Apollo should have ended at the ‘golden lute,’ and have left it to the imagination to complete the picture, how he ‘filled the illumined groves.’ I think every man of taste will feel the justice of the remark.
Every one now knows what was then known to his friends that Keats was an ardent admirer of Chatterton. The melody of the verses of the marvellous Boy who perished in his pride, enchanted the author of Endymion. Methinks I now hear him recite, or chant, in his peculiar manner, the following stanza of the Roundelay sung by the minstrels of Ella:—
Come with acorn cup and thorn
Drain my hertys blood away;
Life and all its good I scorn;
Dance by night or feast by day.
The first line to his ear possessed the great charm. Indeed his sense of melody was quite exquisite, as is apparent in his own verses; and in none more than in numerous passages of his Endymion.
Another object of his enthusiastic admiration was the Homeric character of Achilles—especially when he is described as ‘shouting in the trenches.’ One of his favourite topics of discourse was the principle of melody in verse, upon which he had his own notions, particularly in the management of open and close vowels. I think I have seen a somewhat similar theory attributed to Mr Wordsworth. But I do not remember his laying it down in writing. Be this as it may, Keats’s theory was worked out by himself. It was, that the vowels should be so managed as not to clash one with another, so as to hear the melody,—and yet that they should be interchanged, like differing notes of music to prevent monotony….(3)
Bailey here tries to reconstruct and illustrate from memory Keats’s theory of vowel sounds, but his attempt falters and breaks down.
Keats’s own first account of himself from Oxford is in a letter of September 5th to the Reynolds sisters, then on holiday at Littlehampton: a piece of mere lively foolery and rattle meant to amuse, in a taste which is not that of to-day. Five days later he writes the first of that series of letters to his young sister Fanny which acquaints us with perhaps the most loveable and admirable parts of his character. She was now just fourteen, and living under the close guardianship of the Abbeys, who had put her to a boarding school at Walthamstow. Keats shows a tender and considerate elder-brotherly anxiety to get into touch with her and know her feelings and likings:—
Let us now begin a regular question and answer—a little pro and con; letting it interfere as a pleasant method of my coming at your favourite little wants and enjoyments, that I may meet them in a way befitting a brother.
We have been so little together since you have been able to reflect on things that I know not whether you prefer the History of King Pepin to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress—or Cinderella and her glass slipper to Moor’s Almanack. However in a few Letters I hope I shall be able to come at that and adapt my scribblings to your Pleasure. You must tell me about all you read if it be only six Pages in a Week and this transmitted to me every now and then will procure full sheets of Writing from me pretty frequently.—This I feel as a necessity for we ought to become intimately acquainted, in order that I may not only, as you grow up love you as my only Sister, but confide in you as my dearest friend. When I saw you last I told you of my intention of going to Oxford and ’tis now a Week since I disembark’d from his Whipship’s Coach the Defiance in this place. I am living in Magdalen Hall on a visit to a young Man with whom I have not been long acquainted, but whom I like very much—we lead very industrious lives—he in general Studies and I in proceeding at a pretty good rate with a Poem which I hope you will see early in the next year.—Perhaps you might like to know what I am writing about. I will tell you. Many Years ago there was a young handsome Shepherd who fed his flocks on a Mountain’s Side called Latmus he was a very contemplative sort of a Person and lived solitary among the trees and Plains little thinking that such a beautiful Creature as the Moon was growing mad in Love with him.—However so it was; and when he was asleep on the Grass she used to come down from heaven and admire him excessively for a long time; and at last could not refrain from carrying him away in her arms to the top of that high Mountain Latmus while he was a dreaming—but I dare say you have read this and all the other beautiful Tales which have come down from the ancient times of that beautiful Greece. If you have not let me know and I will tell you more at large of others quite as delightful. This Oxford I have no doubt is the finest City in the world—it is full of old Gothic buildings—Spires—towers—Quadrangles—Cloisters—Groves etc and is surrounded with more clear streams than ever I saw together. I take a Walk by the Side of one of them every Evening and, thank God, we have not had a drop of rain these days.
He goes on to tell her (herein echoing Hunt’s opinion) how much better it would be if Italian instead of French were taught everywhere in schools, and winds up:—
Now Fanny you must write soon—and write all you think about, never mind what—only let me have a good deal of your writing—You need not do it all at once—be two or three or four days about it, and let it be a diary of your Life. You will preserve all my Letters and I will secure yours—and thus in the course of time we shall each of us have a good Bundle—which, hereafter, when things may have strangely altered and God knows what happened, we may read over together and look with pleasure on times past—that now are to come.
Next follows another letter to Jane Reynolds; partly making fun, much better fun than in the last, about Dilke’s shooting and about the rare havoc he would like to make in Mrs Dilke’s garden were he at Hampstead: partly grave in the high style into which he is apt at any moment to change from nonsense:—
Now let us turn to the sea-shore. Believe me, my dear Jane, it is a great happiness to see that you are, in this finest part of the year, winning a little enjoyment from the hard world. In truth, the great Elements we know of, are no means comforters: the open sky sits upon our senses like a sapphire crown—the Air is our robe of state—the Earth is our throne and the Sea a mighty minstrel playing before it—able, like David’s harp, to make such a one as you forget almost the tempest cares of life. I have found in the ocean’s music,—varying (tho’ self-same) more than the passion of Timotheus, an enjoyment not to be put into words; and, ‘though inland far I be,’ I now hear the voice most audibly while pleasing myself in the idea of your sensations.
To Reynolds Keats writes on September the 21st:—
For these last five or six days, we have had regularly a Boat on the Isis, and explored all the streams about, which are more in number than your eye-lashes. We sometimes skim into a Bed of rushes, and there become naturalized river-folks,—there is one particularly nice nest, which we have christened ‘Reynolds’s Cove,’ in which we have read Wordsworth, and talked as may be; I think I see you and Hunt meeting in the Pit.—What a very pleasant fellow he is, if he would give up the sovereignty of a room pro bono. What evenings we might pass with him, could we have him from Mrs H. Failings I am always rather rejoiced to find in a man than sorry for; they bring us to a level.
Then follows a diatribe against the literary and intellectual pretensions of certain sets of ladies, from which he has felt an agreeable relief in some verses he has found on taking down from Bailey’s shelves the poems of Katherine Philips, ‘the matchless Orinda.’ The verses which pleased him, truly of her best, are those To M. A. at parting, and Keats goes on to copy them in full. Had Orinda been a contemporary, he might not, indeed, have failed to recognize in her a true woman of letters: but would he not also have found something to laugh and chafe at in the poses of that high-flying coterie of mutual admirers, Silvander and Poliarchus, Lucasia and Rosania and Palæmon, of which she was the centre? This is one of the very few instances to be found in Keats’s work or correspondence of interest in the poetry of the Caroline age.
Quite in the last days of his visit Keats, whose mind and critical power had been growing while he worked upon Endymion, and whom moreover the long effort of composition was clearly beginning to fatigue, confides to Haydon his dissatisfaction with what he has done:—‘You will be glad to hear that within these last three weeks I have written 1000 lines—which are the third Book of my Poem. My Ideas with respect to it I assure you are very low—and I would write the subject thoroughly again—but I am tired of it and think the time would be better spent in writing a new Romance which I have in my eye for next summer—Rome was not built in a day—and all the good I expect from my employment this summer is the fruit of Experience which I hope to gather in my next Poem.’
Coming back in the first week of October to Hampstead, whither his brothers had by this time also returned from a trip to Paris, Keats was presently made uncomfortable by evidences of discord among his friends and reports of what seemed like disloyalty on the part of one of them, Leigh Hunt, to himself. Haydon had now left the studio in Great Marlborough Street for one in Lisson Grove, and the Hunts, having come away from Hampstead and paid a long late-summer visit to the Shelleys at Marlow, were lodging near him in the same street. ‘Everybody seems at loggerheads,’ Keats writes to Bailey. ‘There’s Hunt infatuated—there’s Haydon’s picture in statu quo—There’s Hunt walks up and down his painting-room—criticizing every head most unmercifully.’ Both Haydon and Reynolds, he goes on, keep telling him tales of Hunt: How Hunt has been talking flippantly and patronizingly of Endymion, saying that if it is four thousand lines long now it would have been seven thousand but for him, and giving the impression that Keats stood to him in the relation of a pupil needing and taking advice. He declares in consequence that he is quite disgusted with literary men and will never know another except Wordsworth; and then, more coolly and sensibly, ‘now, is not this a most paltry thing to think about?… This is, to be sure, the vexation of a day, nor would I say so many words about it to any but those whom I know to have my welfare and reputation at heart.’
During the six or seven autumn weeks spent at Hampstead after his return from Oxford Keats was getting on, a little flaggingly, with the fourth book of Endymion, besides writing an occasional lyric or two. Fresh from the steadying and sympathetic companionship of Bailey, he keeps up their intimacy by affectionate letters in which he discloses much of that which lay deepest and was best in him. Writing in the first days of November he congratulates Bailey on having got a curacy in Cumberland and promises some day to visit him there; says he is in a fair way to have finished Endymion in three weeks; mentions an idea he has of shipping his brother Tom, who has been looking worse, off to Lisbon for the winter and perhaps going with him; and gets in by a side wind a masterly criticism of Wordsworth’s poem The Gipsies and also of Hazlitt’s criticism of it in the Round Table. A fragment of another letter, dated November the 5th, alludes with annoyance, not for the first time, to some failure of Haydon’s to keep his word or take trouble about a young man from Oxford named Cripps whom he had promised to receive as pupil and in whom Bailey and Keats were interested. The same fragment records the appearance in Blackwood (the Endinburgh Magazine, as Keats calls it) of the famous first article of the Cockney School series, attacking Hunt with a virulence far beyond even the accustomed licence of the time, and seeming by the motto prefixed to it (verses of Cornelius Webb coupling the names of Hunt and Keats) to threaten a similar handling of Keats later on. ‘I don’t mind the thing much,’ says Keats, ‘but if he should go to such lengths with me as he has done with Hunt, I must infallibly call him to an Account if he be a human being, and appears in Squares and Theatres, where we might possibly meet—I don’t relish his abuse.’
Some time about mid-November Keats, his health and strength being steadier than in the spring, felt himself in the mood for a few weeks of solitude and went to spend them at Burford Bridge Inn, in the beautiful vale of Mickleham between Leatherhead and Dorking. The outing, he wrote, was intended ‘to change the scene—change the air—and give me a spur to wind up my poem, of which there are wanting 500 lines.’ Keats dearly loved a valley: he loved even the sound of the names denoting one. In his marginal notes to a copy of Paradise Lost he gave a friend we find the following:—
‘Or have ye chosen this place
After the toil of battle to repose
Your wearied virtue, for the ease you find
To slumber here, as in the vales of Heaven?’
There is cool pleasure in the very sound of vale. The English word is of the happiest chance. Milton has put vales in heaven and hell with the very utter affection and yearning of a great Poet. It is a sort of Delphic Abstraction—a beautiful thing made more beautiful by being reflected and put in a Mist. The next mention of Vale is one of the most pathetic in the whole range of Poetry:—
‘Others, more mild,
Retreated in a silent valley, sing
With notes angelical to many a harp
Their own heroic deeds and hapless fall
By doom of battle.’
How much of the charm is in the valley!
There, from his inmost self, speaks a poet of another poet, and as if to and for poets, deep calling unto deep. But in his every-day vein of speech or writing Keats was always reticent in regard to the scenery of places he visited, disliking nothing more than the glib ecstasies of the tourist in search of the picturesque. When he has looked round him in his new quarters at Burford Bridge he says simply, writing to Reynolds on November the 22nd, ‘I like this place very much. There is Hill and Dale and a little river. I went up Box Hill this evening after the moon—“you a’ seen the Moon”—came down and wrote some lines.’ ‘Whenever I am separated from you,’ he continues, ‘and not engaged in a continuous Poem, every letter shall bring you a lyric—but I am too anxious for you to enjoy the whole to send you a particle:’ the whole, that is, of Endymion. The sequel shows him to be just as deep and ardent in the study of Shakespeare as when he was beginning his poem at Carisbrooke in the spring. ‘I never found so many beauties in the Sonnets—they seem to be full of fine things said unintentionally—in the intensity of working out conceits:’ and he goes on to quote passages and phrases both from them and from Venus and Adonis. Next, with a sudden change of mind about letting Reynolds see a sample of Endymion, ‘By the Whim-King! I’ll give you a stanza, because it is not material in connexion, and when I wrote it I wanted you to give your vote, pro or con.’—The stanza he gives is from the song of the Constellations in the fourth book, certainly one of the weakest things in the poem: pity Reynolds had not been there indeed, to give his vote contra.
On the same day, November 22, Keats writes to Bailey a letter even richer in contents and more self-revealing than this to Reynolds. It gives the indispensable key both to much in his own character and much of the deeper speculative and symbolic meanings underlying his work, from Endymion to the Ode on a Grecian Urn. Beginning with a wise and tolerant reference to the Haydon trouble, and throwing out a passing hint of the distinction between men of Genius, who have not, and men of Power, who have, a proper individual self or determined character of their own, Keats passes at the close to an illuminating self-confession which is also a contrast between himself and his correspondent:—
You perhaps at one time thought there was such a thing as worldly happiness to be arrived at, at certain periods of time marked out,—you have of necessity from your disposition been thus led away—I scarcely remember counting upon any happiness—I look not for it if it be not in the present hour,—nothing startles me beyond the moment. The Setting Sun will always set me to rights, or if a Sparrow come before my Window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel. The first thing that strikes me on hearing a misfortune having befallen another is this—‘Well, it cannot be helped: he will have the pleasure of trying the resources of his Spirit’—and I beg now, my dear Bailey, that hereafter should you observe anything cold in me not to put it to the account of heartlessness, but abstraction—for I assure you I sometimes feel not the influence of a passion or affection during a whole Week—and so long this sometimes continues, I begin to suspect myself, and the genuineness of my feelings at other times—thinking them a few barren Tragedy Tears.
Readers of Endymion will recognize a symbolic embodiment of a mood akin to this in the Cave of Quietude in the fourth book. But the great value of the letter, especially great as a help to the study of Endymion in general, is in the long central passage setting forth his speculations as to the relation of imagination to truth, meaning truth ultimate or transcendental. He finds his clue in the eighth book of Paradise Lost, where Adam, recounting to Raphael his first experiences as new-created man, tells how twice over he fell into a dream and awoke to find it true: his first dream thus confirmed in the result being how ‘One of shape divine’ took him by the hand and led him into the garden of Paradise: (4) his second, how the same glorious shape came to him and opened his side and from his rib fashioned a creature:
Manlike, but different sex, so lovely fair,
That what seem’d fair in all the World, seem’d now
Mean, or in her sum’d up, in her contain’d
And in her looks, which from that time infus’d
Sweetness into my heart, unfelt before,
And into all things from her Air inspir’d
The spirit of love and amorous delight.
She disappear’d, and left me dark, I wak’d
To find her, or for ever to deplore
Her loss, and other pleasures all abjure:
When out of hope, behold her, not far off,
Such as I saw her in my dream, adorn’d
With what all Earth or Heaven could bestow
To make her amiable. (5)
It was no doubt this second of Adam’s dreams that was chiefly in Keats’s mind. His way of explaining his speculations to his friend is quite unstudied and inconsecutive; he is, as he says, ‘continually running away from the subject,’ or shall we say letting the stream of his ideas branch out into side channels from which he finds it difficult to come back? But yet their main current and purport will be found not difficult to follow, if only the reader will bear one thing well in mind: that when Keats in this and similar passages speaks of ‘Sensations’ as opposed to ‘Thoughts’ he does not limit the word to sensations of the body, of what intensity or exquisiteness soever or howsoever instantaneously transforming themselves from sensation into emotion: what he means are intuitions of the mind and spirit as immediate as these, as thrillingly convincing and indisputable, as independent of all consecutive stages and formal processes of thinking: almost the same things, indeed, as in a later passage of the same letter he calls ‘ethereal musings.’ And now let the poet speak for himself:—
O! I wish I was as certain of the end of all your troubles as that of your momentary start about the authenticity of the Imagination. I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections, and the truth of Imagination. What the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be Truth—whether it existed before or not,—for I have the same idea of all our passions as of Love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty. In a Word you may know my favourite speculation by my first Book, and the little Song I sent in my last, which is a representation from the fancy of the probable mode of operating in these Matters. The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream, he awoke and found it truth:—I am more zealous in this affair, because I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning—and yet it must be. Can it be that even the greatest Philosopher ever arrived at his Goal without putting aside numerous objections? However it may be, O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts! It is ‘a Vision in the form of Youth,’ a shadow of reality to come—and this consideration has further convinced me,—for it has come as auxiliary to another favourite speculation of mine,—that we shall enjoy ourselves hereafter by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone. And yet such a fate can only befall those who delight in Sensation, rather than hunger as you do after Truth. Adam’s dream will do here, and seems to be a Conviction that Imagination and its empyreal reflexion, is the same as human life and its spiritual repetition. But, as I was saying, the simple imaginative Mind may have its rewards in the repetition of its own silent Working coming continually on the Spirit with a fine Suddenness. To compare great things with small, have you never, by being surprised with an old Melody, in a delicious place by a delicious voice, felt over again your very speculations and surmises at the time it first operated on your soul? Do you not remember forming to yourself the Singer’s face—more beautiful than it was possible, and yet, with the elevation of the Moment, you did not think so? Even then you were mounted on the Wings of Imagination, so high that the prototype must be hereafter—that delicious face you will see.
There is one sentence in the above which gives us special matter for regret. Keats speaks of ‘the little Song I sent in my last, which is a representation from the fancy of the probable mode of operating in these matters.’ Such a song, if we had it, would doubtless put forth clearly and melodiously in concrete imagery the ideas which Keats in his letter tries to expound in the abstract language of which he is by nature so much less a master. Of ‘my last,’ that is of his preceding letter to Bailey, unhappily but a fragment is preserved, and the song must have been lost with the sheet or sheets which went astray, seeing that none of Keats’s preserved lyrics can be held to answer to his account of this one. His words have a further interest as proving that now in these days of approaching winter, with his long poem almost finished, he allowed himself to digress into some lyric experiments, as in its earlier stages he had not done. External testimony and reasonable inference enable us to identify some of these experiments. Two or three lightish love-lyrics, whether impersonal or inspired by passing adventures of his own, are among the number. That beginning ‘Think not of it, sweet one, so,’ dates definitely from November 11, before he left Hampstead. To nearly about the same time belongs almost certainly the very daintily finished stanzas ‘Unfelt, unheard, unseen,’ which one at least of Keats’s subtlest critics (6) considers (I cannot agree with her) the first of his technically faultless achievements. So also, I am convinced, does that much less happily wrought thing, the little love-plaint discovered only two years ago and beginning—
You say you love, but with a voice
Chaster than a nun’s who singeth
The soft vespers to herself
When the chime-bell ringeth—
O love me truly!
You say you love; but with a smile
Cold as sunrise in September,
As you were St Cupid’s nun,
And kept his week of Ember.
O love me truly!—
and so forth. Here again, it seems evident, we have an instance of an echo from one of the old Elizabethan poets (this time an anonymous song-writer) lingering like a chime in Keats’s memory. Listen to the first three stanzas of A Proper Wooing Song, written to the tune of the Merchant’s Daughter and printed in Clement Robinson’s Handful of Pleasant Delites, 1584:—
Maide will ye loue me yea or no?
tell me the trothe and let me go.
It can be no lesse than a sinful deed,
trust me truly,
To linger a Louer that lookes to speede,
in due time duly.
You maides that thinke yourselves as fine,
as Venus and all the Muses nine:
The Father Himselfe when He first made man,
trust me truly,
Made you for his helpe when the world began,
in due time duly.
Then sith God’s will was even so
why should you disdaine your Louer tho?
But rather with a willing heart,
loue him truly;
For in so doing you do your part
let reason rule ye.
The metrical form of Keats’s verses is not, indeed, the same as that of the Elizabethan song, but I think he must certainly have had the cadence of its refrains more or less consciously in his mind’s ear. (7)
A definite and dated case of a lyrical experiment suggested to Keats at this time by an older model is the famous little ‘drear-nighted December’ song in which he re-embodies, with new and seasonable imagery, the ancient moral of the misery added to misery by the remembrance of past happiness. This was composed, as Woodhouse on the express testimony of Jane Reynolds informs us, in the beginning of this same December, 1817, when Keats was finishing Endymion at Burford Bridge. Any reader familiar with the aspect of the spot at that season, when the overhanging trees have shed their last gold, and spars of ice have begun to fringe the sluggish meanderings of the Mole, will realize how deeply the sentiment of the scene and season has sunk into Keats’s verse. Well as the piece is known, I shall quote it entire, not in the form in which it is printed in the editions, but in that in which alone it exists in his own hand-writing and in the transcripts by his friends Woodhouse and Brown (8):—
In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne’er remember
Their green felicity:
The north cannot undo them,
With a sleety whistle through them;
Nor frozen thawings glue them
From budding at the prime.
In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy brook,
Thy bubblings ne’er remember
Apollo’s summer look;
But with a sweet forgetting,
They stay their crystal fretting,
Never, never petting
About the frozen time.
Ah! would ‘twere so with many
A gentle girl and boy!
But were there ever any
Writh’d not at passed joy?
The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it,
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never said in rhyme. (9)
Keats’s model in this instance is a song from Dryden’s Spanish Fryar, a thing rather beside his ordinary course of reading: can he perhaps have taken the volume containing it from Bailey’s shelves, as he took the poems of Orinda? Here is a verse to show the tune as set by Dryden:—
Farewell ungrateful Traitor,
Farewell my perjured swain,
Let never injured creature
Believe a man again.
The pleasure of possessing
Surpasses all expressing,
But ’tis too short a blessing,
And Love too long a pain.
Do readers recall what the greatest of metrical magicians, who would be so very great a poet if metrical magic were the whole of poetry, or if the body of thought and imagination in his work had commonly half as much vitality as the verbal music which is its vesture,—do readers recall what Mr Swinburne made of this same measure when he took it up half a century later in the Garden of Proserpine?
But in attending to these incidental lyrics we risk losing sight of what was Keats’s main business in these weeks, namely the bringing to a close his eight months’ task upon Endymion. In finishing the poem he was only a little behind the date he had fixed when he wrote its opening lines at Carisbrooke:—
Many and many a verse I hope to write,
Before the daisies, vermeil rimm’d and white,
Hide in deep herbage; and ere yet the bees
Hum about globes of clover and sweet peas,
I must be near the middle of my story.
O may no wintry season, bare and hoary,
See it half finish’d: but let Autumn bold,
With universal tinge of sober gold,
Be all about me when I make an end.
The gold had almost all fallen: in the passage in which Keats makes Endymion bid what he supposes to be his last farewell to his mortal love it is the season itself, the season and the autumnal scene, which speak, just as they spoke in the ‘drear-nighted December’ lyric:—
No word return’d: both lovelorn, silent, wan,
Into the vallies green together went.
Far wandering, they were perforce content
To sit beneath a fair lone beechen tree;
Nor at each other gaz’d, but heavily
Por’d on its hazle cirque of shedded leaves.
At this he press’d
His hands against his face, and then did rest
His head upon a mossy hillock green,
And so remain’d as he a corpse had been
All the long day; save when he scantly lifted
His eyes abroad, to see how shadows shifted
With the slow move of time,—sluggish and weary
Until the poplar tops, in journey dreary,
Had reach’d the river’s brim. Then up he rose,
And slowly as that very river flows,
Walk’d towards the temple grove with this lament:
‘Why such a golden eve? The breeze is sent
Careful and soft, that not a leaf may fall
Before the serene father of them all
Bows down his summer head below the west.
Now am I of breath, speech, and speed possest,
But at the setting I must bid adieu
To her for the last time. Night will strew
On the damp grass myriads of lingering leaves,
And with them shall I die; nor much it grieves
To die, when summer dies on the cold sward.’
That point about making, as it were, a dial-hand of a certain group of poplars with their moving shadows would have a special local interest if one could find the place which suggested it. The sun sets early in this valley in the winter. I know not if there is any group of trees still standing that could be watched thus lengthening out its afternoon shadow to the river’s edge.
Opposite the last line in the manuscript of Endymion Keats wrote the date November 28, whence it would appear that it had taken him some ten days at most to complete the required five hundred lines. He did not immediately leave Burford Bridge, but stayed on through the first week or ten days of December, setting to work at once, it would appear, on the revision of his long poem, and composing, we know, the ‘drear-nighted December’ lyric, and perhaps one or two others, before he returned to the fraternal lodgings at Hampstead. The scheme of a winter flight to Lisbon for the suffering Tom had been given up, and it had been arranged instead that George should take him to spend some months at Teignmouth. They were to be there by Christmas, and Keats timed his return so as to be with them for a week or two at Hampstead before they started. Endymion was not published until the following April, but inasmuch as with its completion there ends the first, the uncertain, experimental, now rapturously and now despondently expectant phase of Keats’s mind and art, let us make this our opportunity for studying it.
(1) ‘Sad stories’ in the original text of Richard II. The allusion is to the well-known incident of Shelley alarming an old lady in a stage coach by suddenly breaking out with this quotation. Whether Keats had been in his company at the time we do not know.
(2) ‘Our friend’ of course is Leigh Hunt.
(3) Houghton MSS.
(4) Paradise Lost, viii, 288-311.
(5) Ibid. viii, 452-490.
(6) The late precociously gifted and prematurely lost Mary Suddard, in Essays and Studies (Cambridge, 1912).
(7) If it is objected that The Handful of Pleasant Delites is an excessively rare book, which Keats is not likely to have known, the answer is that it had been reprinted three years earlier in Heliconia, the great three-volume collection edited by Thomas Park; and moreover that Park, one of the most zealous and learned of researchers in the field of old English literature, had long been living in Church Row, Hampstead, and both as neighbour and elder fellow-worker can hardly fail to have been known to Dilke and his circle.
(8) Crewe MSS.
(9) This poem was first printed posthumously in 1829: both in The Gem, a periodical of the Keepsake type then edited by Thomas Hood, and in Galignani’s collective edition of the poems of Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats published the same year in Paris. In these and all versions subsequently printed the first lines of stanzas I and II are altered and read ‘In a drear-nighted December,’ and the fifth line is made to run, ‘To know the change and feel it.’ The first line thus gets two light syllables instead of one before the first stress, giving a faint suggestion of a triple-time movement which certainly does not hurt the metre. The new fifth line is to modern ears more elegant than the original, as getting rid of the vulgar substantive form ‘feel’ for feeling. But ‘feel,’ which after all had been good enough for Horace Walpole and Fanny Burney, was to Keats and the Leigh Hunt circle no vulgarism at all, it was a thing of every day usage both in verse and prose. And does not the correction somewhat blunt the point of Keats’s meaning? To be emphatically aware of no longer feeling a joy once felt is a pain that may indeed call for steeling or healing, while to steel or heal a ‘change’ seems neither so easy nor so needful: at all events the phrase is more lax. It may be doubted whether the alterations are due to Keats at all and not to someone (conceivably, in the case of The Gem, Thomas Hood) editing him after his death. I should add, however, that I have found what must perhaps be regarded as evidence that Keats did try various versions of this final stanza, in the shape of another transcript made in 1827 by a brother of his friend Woodhouse. In this version the poem is headed Pain of Memory, an apt title, and while the first and second stanzas keep their original form, the third runs quite differently, as follows:—
But in the Soul’s December
The fancy backward strays,
And darkly doth remember
The hue of golden days,
In woe the thought appalling
Of bliss gone past recalling
Brings o’er the heart a falling
Not to be told in rhyme.
This can hardly be other than an alternative version tried by Keats himself. The ‘Fallings from us, vanishings’ of Wordsworth’s Ode on Intimations of Immortality, may be responsible for the ‘falling’ in the seventh line, and though ‘the thought appalling’ is a common-place phrase little in Keats’s manner, it is worth noting that the word occurs in Bailey’s report of his spoken comment on this very passage of Wordsworth (see above, p. 146).
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