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CHAPTER VII (About John Keats by Sidney Colvin)

ENDYMION.—II. THE POETRY: ITS QUALITIES AND AFFINITIES

Revival of Elizabethan usages—Avoidance of closed couplets—True metrical instincts—An example—Rime too much his master—Lax use of words—Flaws of taste and training—Faults and beauties inseparable—Homage to the moon—A parallel from Drayton—Examples of nature-poetry—Nature and the Greek spirit—Greek mythology revitalized—Its previous deadness—Poetry of love and war—Dramatic promise—Comparison with models—Sandys’s Ovid—Hymn to Pan: Chapman—Ben Jonson—The hymn in Endymion—‘A pretty piece of paganism’—Song of the Indian maiden—The triumph of Bacchus—A composite: its sources—English scenery and detail—Influence of Wordsworth—Influence of Shelley—Endymion and Alastor—Correspondences and contrasts—Hymn to Intellectual Beauty—Shelley on Endymion—Keats and Clarence’s dream—Shelley a borrower—Shelley and the rimed couplet.

Throughout the four books of Endymion we find Keats still working, more even than in his epistles and meditations of the year before, under the spell of Elizabethan and early Jacobean poetry. Spenser and the Spenserians, foremost among them William Browne; Drayton in his pastorals and elegies; Shakespeare, especially in his early poems and comedies; Fletcher and Ben Jonson in pastoral and lyrical work like The Faithful Shepherdess or The Sad Shepherd; Chapman’s version of Homer, especially the Odyssey and the Hymns, and Sandys’s of the Metamorphoses of Ovid; these are the masters and the models of whom we feel his mind and ear to be full. In their day the English language had been to a large extent unfixed, and in their instinctive efforts to enrich and expand and supple it, poets had enjoyed a wide range of freedom both in maintaining old and in experimenting with new usages. Many of the liberties they used were renounced by the differently minded age which followed them, and the period from the Restoration, roughly speaking, to the middle years of George III had in matters of literary form and style been one of steadily tightening restriction and convention. Then ensued the period of expansion, in which Wordsworth and Coleridge and Scott had been the most conspicuous leaders, each after his manner, in reconquering the freedom of poetry. Other innovators had followed suit, including Leigh Hunt in that slippered, sentimental, Italianate fashion of his own. And now came young Keats, not following closely along the paths opened by any of these, though closer to Leigh Hunt than to the others, but making a deliberate return to certain definite and long abandoned usages of the English poets during the illustrious half century from 1590-1640. He chose the heroic couplet, and in handling it reversed the settled practice of more than a century. He was even more sedulous than any of his Elizabethan or Jacobean masters to achieve variety of pause and movement by avoiding the regular beat of the closed couplet; while in framing his style he did not scruple to revive all or nearly all those licences of theirs which the intervening age had disallowed. There was a special rashness in his attempt considering the slightness of his own critical equipment, and considering also the strength of the long riveted fetters which he undertook to break and the charges of affectation and impertinence which such a revival of obsolete metrical and verbal usages—the marks of what Pope had denounced as ‘our rustic vein And splay-foot verse’—was bound to bring against him.

First of his revolutionary treatment of the metre. He no longer uses double or feminine endings, as in his epistles of the year before, with a profusion like that of Britannia’s Pastorals. They occur, but in moderation, hardly more than a score of them in any one of the four books. At the beginning he tries often, but afterwards gives up, an occasional trick of the Elizabethan and earlier poets in riming on the unstressed second syllables of words such as ‘dancing’ (rimed with ‘string’), ‘elbow’ (with ‘slow’), ‘velvet’ (with ‘set’), ‘purplish’ (with ‘fish’). On the other hand he regularly resolves the ‘tion’ or ‘shion’ termination into its full two syllables, the last carrying the rime, as—‘With speed of five-tailed exhalations:’ ‘Before the deep intoxication;’ ‘Vanish’d in elemental passion;’ and the like. He admits closed couplets, but very grudgingly, as a general rule in the proportion of not more than one to eight or ten of the unclosed. He seldom allows himself even so much of a continuous run of them as this:—

Moreover, through the dancing poppies stole
A breeze most softly lulling to my soul;
And shaping visions all about my sight
Of colours, wings, and bursts of spangly light;
The which became more strange, and strange, and dim,
And then were gulph’d in a tumultuous swim:

Or this:—

So in that crystal place, in silent rows,
Poor lovers lay at rest from joys and woes.—
The stranger from the mountains, breathless, trac’d
Such thousands of shut eyes in order plac’d;
Such ranges of white feet, and patient lips
All ruddy,—for here death no blossom nips.
He mark’d their brows and foreheads; saw their hair
Put sleekly on one side with nicest care.

 

The essential principle of his versification is to let sentences, prolonged and articulated as freely and naturally as in prose, wind their way in and out among the rimes, the full pause often splitting a couplet by falling at the end of the first line, and oftener still (in the proportion of two or three times to one) breaking up a single line in the middle or at any point of its course. Sense and sound flow habitually over from one couplet to the next without logical or grammatical pause, but to keep the sense of metre present to the ear Keats commonly takes care that the second line of a couplet shall end with a fully stressed rime-word such as not only allows, but actually invites, at least a momentary breathing-pause to follow it. It is only in the rarest cases that he compels the breath to hurry on with no chance of stress or after-rest from a light preposition at the end of a line to its object at the beginning of the next (‘on | His left,’ ‘upon | A dreary morning’), or from an auxiliary to its verb (‘as might be | Remembered’) or from a comparative particle to the thing compared (‘sleeker than | Night-swollen mushrooms’); a practice in which Chapman, Ben Jonson, Fletcher, and their contemporaries indulged, as we have seen, freely, and which afterwards developed into a fatal disease of the metre. Keats’s musical and metrical instincts were too fine, and his ear too early trained in the ‘sweet-slipping’ movement of Spenser, to let him fall often into this fault. To the other besetting fault of some of these masters, that of a harsh and jolting ruggedness, he was still less prone. Although he chooses to forgo that special effect of combined vigour and smoothness proper to the closed couplet, he always knows how to make a rich and varied music with his vowel sounds; while the same fine natural instinct for sentence-structure as distinguishes the prose of his letters makes itself felt in his verse, so that wherever he has need to place a full stop he can make his sentence descend upon it smoothly and skimmingly, like a seabird on the sea. (1) The long passage quoted from Book III in the last chapter illustrates the narrative verse of Endymion in nearly all its moods and variations. Here is a characteristic example of its spoken or dramatic verse. Endymion supplicates his goddess from underground:—

O Haunter chaste
Of river sides, and woods, and heathy waste,
Where with thy silver bow and arrows keen
Art thou now forested? O Woodland Queen,
What smoothest air thy smoother forehead woos?
Where dost thou listen to the wide halloos
Of thy disparted nymphs? Through what dark tree
Glimmers thy crescent? Wheresoe’er it be,
’Tis in the breath of heaven: thou dost taste
Freedom as none can taste it, nor dost waste
Thy loveliness in dismal elements;
But, finding in our green earth sweet contents,
There livest blissfully. Ah, if to thee
It feels Elysian, how rich to me,
An exil’d mortal, sounds its pleasant name!
Within my breast there lives a choking flame—
O let me cool’t the zephyr-boughs among!
A homeward fever parches up my tongue—
O let me slake it at the running springs!
Upon my ear a noisy nothing rings—
O let me once more hear the linnet’s note!
Before mine eyes thick films and shadows float—
O let me ‘noint them with the heaven’s light!
Dost thou now lave thy feet and ankles white?
O think how sweet to me the freshening sluice!
Dost thou now please thy thirst with berry-juice?
O think how this dry palate would rejoice!
If in soft slumber thou dost hear my voice,
O think how I should love a bed of flowers!—

 

The first fifteen lines of the above are broken and varied much in Keats’s usual way: in the following fourteen it is to be noted how he throws the speaker’s alternate complaints of his predicament and prayers for release from it not into twinned but into split or parted couplets, making each prayer rime not with the complaint which calls it forth but with the new complaint which is to follow it: a bold and to my ear a happy sacrifice of obvious rhetorical effect to his predilection for the suspended or delayed rime-echo.

Rime is to some poets a stiff and grudging but to others an officious servant, over-active in offering suggestions to the mind; and no poet is rightly a master until he has learnt how to sift those suggestions, rejecting many and accepting only the fittest. Keats in Endymion has not reached nor come near reaching this mastery: in the flush and eagerness of composition he is content to catch at almost any and every suggestion of the rime, no matter how far-fetched and irrelevant. He had a great fore-runner in this fault in Chapman, who constantly, especially in the Iliad, wrenches into his text for the rime’s sake ideas that have no kind of business there. Take the passage justly criticized by Bailey at the beginning of the third Book:—

There are who lord it o’er their fellow-men
With most prevailing tinsel: who unpen
Their baaing vanities, to browse away
The comfortable green and juicy hay
From human pastures; or, O torturing fact!
Who, through an idiot blink, will see unpack’d
Fire-branded foxes to sear up and singe
Our gold and ripe-ear’d hopes. With not one tinge
Of sanctuary splendour, not a sight
Able to face an owl’s, they still are dight
By the blear-ey’d nations in empurpled vests,
And crowns, and turbans.

 

Here it is obviously the need of a rime to ‘men’ that has suggested the word ‘unpen’ and the clumsy imagery of the ‘baaing sheep’ which follows, while the inappropriate and almost meaningless ‘tinge of sanctuary splendour’ lower down has been imported for the sake of the foxes with fire-brands tied to their tails which ‘singe’ the metaphorical corn-sheaves (they come from the story of Samson in the Book of Judges). Milder cases abound, as this of Circe tormenting her victims:—

                         appealing groans
From their poor breasts went sueing to her ear
In vain; remorseless as an infant’s bier
She whisk’d against their eyes the sooty oil.

                          Does yonder thrush,
Schooling its half-fledg’d little ones to brush
About the dewy forest, whisper tales.
Speak not of grief, young stranger, or cold snails
Will slime the rose to-night.

                         He rose: he grasp’d his stole,
With convuls’d clenches waving it abroad,
And in a voice of solemn joy, that aw’d
Echo into oblivion, he said:—

                           Yet hourly had he striven
To hide the cankering venom, that had riven
His fainting recollections.

                                              The wanderer
Holding his forehead to keep off the burr
Of smothering fancies.

                       Endymion! the cave is secreter
Than the isle of Delos. Echo hence shall stir
No sighs but sigh-warm kisses, or light noise
Of thy combing hand, the while it travelling cloys
And trembles through my labyrinthine hair.

 

Other faults that more gravely mar the poem are not technical but spiritual: intimate failures of taste and feeling due partly to mere rawness and inexperience, partly to excessive intensity and susceptibility of temperament, partly to second-rateness of social training and association. A habit of cloying over-luxuriance in description, the giving way to a sort of swooning abandonment of the senses in contact with the ‘deliciousness’ of things, is the most besetting of such faults. Allied with it is Keats’s treatment of love as an actuality, which in this poem is in unfortunate and distasteful contrast with his high conception of love in the abstract as the inspiring and ennobling power of the world and all things in it. Add the propensity to make Glaucus address Scylla as ‘timid thing!’ and Endymion beg for ‘one gentle squeeze’ from his Indian maiden, with many a like turn in the simpering, familiar mood which Keats at this time had caught from or naturally shared with Leigh Hunt. It should, however, be noted as a mark of progress in self-criticism that, comparing the drafts of the poem with the printed text, we find that in revising it for press he had turned out more and worse passages in this vein than he left in.In some of these cases the trouble is, not that the rime drags in a train of far-fetched or intrusive ideas, but only that words are used for the rime’s sake in inexact and inappropriate senses. Such laxity in the employment of words is one of the great weaknesses of Keats’s style in Endymion, and is no doubt partly connected with his general disposition to treat language as though it were as free and fluid in his own day as it had been two hundred years earlier. The same disposition makes him reckless in turning verbs into nouns (a ‘complain,’ an ‘exclaim,’ a ‘shine,’ a ‘pierce,’  a ‘quell’) and nouns into verbs (to ‘throe,’ to ‘passion,’ to ‘monitor,’ to ‘fragment up’); in using at his convenience active verbs as passive and passive verbs as active; and in not only reviving archaic participial forms (‘dight,’ ‘fight,’ ‘raft,’ etc.) but in giving currency to participles of the class Coleridge denounced as demoralizing to the ear, and as hybrids equivocally generated of noun-substantives (‘emblem’d,’ ‘gordian’d,’ ‘mountain’d,’ ‘phantasy’d’), as well as to adjectives borrowed from Elizabethan use or new-minted more or less in accordance with it (‘pipy,’ ‘paly,’ ‘ripply,’ ‘sluicy,’ ‘slumbery,’ ‘towery,’ ‘bowery,’ ‘orby,’ ‘nervy,’ ‘surgy,’ ‘sparry,’ ‘spangly).’ It was these and such like technical liberties with language which scandalized conservative critics, and caused even De Quincey, becoming tardily acquainted with Keats’s work, to dislike and utterly under-rate it. He himself came before long to condemn the style of ‘the slipshod Endymion.’ Nevertheless the consequence of his experiments in reviving or imitating the usages of the great Renaissance age of English poetry is only in part to be regretted. His rashness led him into almost as many felicities as faults, and the examples of the happier liberties in Endymion has done much towards enriching the vocabulary and diction of English poetry in the nineteenth century.

From flaws or disfigurements of one or other of these kinds the poem is never free for more than a page or two, and rarely for so much, at a time. But granting all weaknesses and immaturities whether of form or spirit, what a power of poetry is in Endymion: what evidence, unmistakeable, one would have said, to the blindest, of genius. Did any poet in his twenty-second year ever write with so prodigal an activity of invention, however undisciplined and unbraced, or with an imagination so penetrating to divine and so swift to evoke beauty? Were so many faults and failures ever interspersed with felicities of married sound and sense so frequent and absolute, and only to be matched in the work of the ripest masters? Lost as the reader may often feel himself among the phantasmagoric intricacies of the tale, cloyed by its amatory insipidities, bewildered by the redundancies of an invention stimulated into over-activity by any and every chance feather-touch of association or rime-suggestion, he can afford to be patient in the certainty of coming, from one page to another, upon touches of true and fresh inspiration in almost every strain and mode of poetry. Often the inspired poet and the raw cockney rimester come inseparably coupled in the limit of half a dozen lines, as thus in the narrative of Glaucus:—

Upon a dead thing’s face my hand I laid;
I look’d—’twas Scylla! Cursed, cursed Circe!
O vulture-witch, hast never heard of mercy?
Could not thy harshest vengeance be content,
But thou must nip this tender innocent 215
Because I loved her?—Cold, O cold indeed
Were her fair limbs, and like a common weed
The sea-swell took her hair.

or thus from the love-making of Cynthia:—

Now I swear at once
That I am wise, that Pallas is a dunce—
Perhaps her love like mine is but unknown—
O I do think that I have been alone
In chastity: yes, Pallas has been sighing,
While every eve saw me my hair uptying,
With fingers cool as aspen leaves.

 

 

In like manner the unfortunate opening of Book III above cited leads on, as Mr de Sélincourt has justly observed, to a passage in praise of the moon which is among the very finest and best sustained examples of Keats’s power in nature-poetry. For quotation I will take not this but a second invocation to the moon which follows a little later, for the reason that in it the raptures and longings which the poet puts into the mouth of his hero are really in a large measure his own:—

What is there in thee, Moon! that thou shouldst move
My heart so potently? When yet a child
I oft have dry’d my tears when thou hast smil’d.
Thou seem’dst my sister: hand in hand we went
From eve to morn across the firmament.
No apples would I gather from the tree,
Till thou hadst cool’d their cheeks deliciously:
No tumbling water ever spake romance,
But when my eyes with thine thereon could dance:
No woods were green enough, no bower divine,
Until thou liftedst up thine eyelids fine:
In sowing time ne’er would I dibble take,
Or drop a seed, till thou wast wide awake;
And, in the summer tide of blossoming,
No one but thee hath heard me blythly sing
And mesh my dewy flowers all the night.
No melody was like a passing spright
If it went not to solemnize thy reign.
Yes, in my boyhood every joy and pain
By thee were fashioned in the self-same end;
And as I grew in years, still didst thou blend
With all my ardours: thou wast the deep glen;
Thou wast the mountain-top—the sage’s pen—
The poet’s harp—the voice of friends—the sun;
Thou wast the river—thou wast glory won;
Thou wast my clarion’s blast—thou wast my steed—
My goblet full of wine—my topmost deed:—
Thou wast the charm of women, lovely Moon!
O what a wild and harmonized tune
My spirit struck from all the beautiful!

 

In the last two lines of the above Keats gives us the essential master key to his own poetic nature and being. The eight preceding, from ‘As I grew in years’ offer in their rhetorical form a curious parallel with a passage of similar purport in Drayton’s Endimion and Phoebe:—

Be kind (quoth he) sweet Nymph unto thy lover,
My soul’s sole essence and my senses’ mover,
Life of my life, pure Image of my heart,
Impression of Conceit, Invention, Art.
My vital spirit receives his spirit from thee,
Thou art that all which ruleth all in me,
Thou art the sap and life whereby I live,
Which powerful vigour doth receive and give.
Thou nourishest the flame wherein I burn,
The North whereto my heart’s true touch doth turn.

 

In nature-poetry, and especially in that mode of it in which the poet goes out with his whole being into nature and loses his identity in delighted sympathy with her doings, Keats already shows himself a master scarcely excelled. Take the lines near the beginning which tell of the ‘silent workings of the dawn’ on the morning of Pan’s festival:—Was Keats, then, after all familiar with the rare volume in which alone Drayton’s early poem had been printed, or does the similar turn of the two passages spring from some innate affinity between the two poets,—or perhaps merely from the natural suggestion of the theme?

Rain-scented eglantine
Gave temperate sweets to that well-wooing sun;
The lark was lost in him; cold springs had run
To warm their chilliest bubbles in the grass;
Man’s voice was on the mountains; and the mass
Of nature’s lives and wonders puls’d tenfold,
To feel this sun-rise and its glories old.

The freshness and music and felicity of the first two lines are nothing less than Shakespearean: in the rest note with how true an instinct the poet evokes the operant magic and living activities of the dawn, single instances first and then in a sudden outburst the sum and volume of them all: how he avoids word-painting and palette-work, leaving all merely visible beauties, the stationary world of colours and forms, as they should be left, to the painter, and dealing, as poetry alone is able to deal, with those delights which are felt and divined rather than seen, delights which the poet instinctively attributes to nature as though she were as sentient as himself. It is like Keats here so to place and lead up to the word ‘old’ as to make it pregnant with all the meanings which it bore to him: that is with all the wonder and romance of ancient Greece, and at the same time with a sense of awe, like that expressed in the opening chorus of Goethe’sFaust, at nature’s eternal miracle of the sun still rising ‘glorious as on creation’s day.’

It is interesting to note how above all other nature-images Keats, whose blood, when his faculties were at their highest tension, was always apt to be heated even to fever-point, prefers those of nature’s coolness and refreshment. Here are two or three out of a score of instances. Endymion tells how he had been gazing at the face of his unknown love smiling at him from the well:—

I started up, when lo! refreshfully,
There came upon my face in plenteous showers
Dew-drops, and dewy buds, and leaves, and flowers,
Wrapping all objects from my smothered sight,
Bathing my spirit in a new delight.

 

Coming to a place where a brook issues from a cave, he says to himself—

’Tis the grot
Of Proserpine, when Hell, obscure and hot,
Doth her resign; and where her tender hands
She dabbles on the cool and sluicy sands:

A little later, and

Now he is sitting by a shady spring,
And elbow-deep with feverous fingering,
Stems the upbursting cold.

 

For many passages where the magic of nature is mingled instinctively and inseparably with the magic of Greek mythology, the prayer of Endymion to Cynthia above quoted (p. 210) may serve as a sample: and all readers of poetry know the famous lines where the beautiful evocation of a natural scene melts into one, more beautiful still, of a scene of ancient life and worship which comes floated upon the poet’s inner vision by an imagined strain of music from across the sea:—

It seem’d he flew, the way so easy was;
And like a new-born spirit did he pass
Through the green evening quiet in the sun,
O’er many a heath, through many a woodland dun,
Through buried paths, where sleepy twilight dreams
The summer time away. One track unseams
A wooded cleft, and, far away, the blue
Of ocean fades upon him; then, anew,
He sinks adown a solitary glen,
Where there was never sound of mortal men,
Saving, perhaps, some snow-light cadences
Melting to silence, when upon the breeze
Some holy bark let forth an anthem sweet,
To cheer itself to Delphi. (2)

 

Often in thus conjuring up visions of the classic past, Keats effects true master strokes of imaginative concentration. Do we not feel half the romance of theOdyssey, with the spell that is in the sound of the vowelled place-names of Grecian story, and the breathing mystery of moonlight falling on magic islands of the sea, distilled into the one line—

Aeaea’s isle was wondering at the moon?

 

And again in the pair of lines—

Like old Deucalion mountain’d o’er the flood
Or blind Orion hungry for the morn,

 

do not the two figures evoked rise before us full-charged each with the vital significance of his story? Mr de Sélincourt is no doubt right in suggesting that in the Orion line Keats’s vision has been stimulated by the print from that picture of Poussin’s which Hazlitt has described in so rich a strain of eulogy.

 One of the great symptoms of returning vitality in the imagination of Europe, as the eighteenth century passed into the nineteenth, was its re-awakening to the significance and beauty of the Greek mythology. For a hundred years and more the value of that mythology for the human spirit had been forgotten. There never had been a time when the names of the ancient, especially the Roman, gods and goddesses were used so often in poetry, but simply in cold obedience to tradition and convention; merely as part of the accepted mode of speech of persons classically educated, and with no more living significance than belonged to the trick of personifying abstract forces and ideas by putting capital initials to their names. So far as concerned any real effect upon men’s minds, it was tacitly understood and accepted that the Greek mythology was ‘dead.’ As if it could ever die; as if the ‘fair humanities of old religion,’ in passing out of the transitory state of things believed into the state of things remembered and cherished in imagination, had not put on a second life more enduring and more fruitful than the first. Faiths, as faiths, perish one after another; but each in passing away bequeaths for the enrichment of the after-world whatever elements it has contained of imaginative or moral truth or beauty. The polytheism of ancient Greece, embodying the instinctive effort of the brightliest gifted human race to explain its earliest experiences of nature and civilization, of the thousand moral and material forces, cruel or kindly, which environ and control the life of man on earth, is rich beyond measure in such elements; and if the modern world at any time fails to value them, it is the modern mind which is in so far dead and not they. Some words of Johnson’s written forty years before Keats’s time may help us to realize the full depth of the deadness from which in this respect it had to be awakened:—

He (Waller) borrows too many of his sentiments and illustrations from the old Mythology, for which it is in vain to plead the example of ancient poets: the deities, which they introduced so frequently, were considered as realities, so far as to be received by the imagination, whatever sober reason might even then determine. But of these images time has tarnished the splendour. A fiction, not only detected but despised, can never afford a solid basis to any position, though sometimes it may furnish a transient allusion, or slight illustration.

To rescue men’s minds from this mode of deadness was part of the work of the English poetical revival of 1800 and onwards, and Keats was the poet who has contributed most to the task. Wordsworth could understand and expound the spirit of Grecian myths, and on occasion, as in his cry for a sight of Proteus and a sound of old Triton’s horn, could for a moment hanker after its revival. Shelley could feel and write of Apollo and Pan and Proserpine, of Alpheus and Arethusa, with ardent delight and lyric emotion. But it was the gift of Keats to make live by imagination, whether in few words or many, every ancient fable that came up in his mind. The couple of lines telling of the song with which Peona tries to soothe her brother’s pining are a perfect example alike of appropriate verbal music and of imagination following out a classic myth, that of the birth and nurture of Pan, from a mere hint to its recesses and finding the human beauty and tenderness that lurk there:—

 

’Twas a lay
More subtle cadencèd, more forest wild
Than Dryope’s lone lulling of her child:

 

Even in setting before us so trite a personification as the god of love, Keats manages to escape the traditional and the merely decorative, and to endow him with a new and subtle vitality—

awfully he stands;
A sovereign quell is in his waving hands;
No sight can bear the lightning of his bow;
His quiver is mysterious, none can know
What themselves think of it; from forth his eyes
There darts strange light of varied hues and dyes:
A scowl is sometimes on his brow, but who
Look full upon it feel anon the blue
Of his fair eyes run liquid through their souls.

 

Keats in one place defines his purpose in his poem, if only he can find strength to carry it out, as a

striving to uprear
Love’s standard on the battlements of song.

 

His actual love scenes, as we have said, are the weakest, his ideal invocations to and celebrations of love among the strongest, things in the poem. One of these, already quoted, comes near the end of the first book: the second book opens with another: in the third book the incident of the moonlight spangling the surface of the sea and penetrating thence to the under-sea caverns where Endymion lies languishing is used to point an essential moral of the narrative:—

O love! how potent hast thou been to teach
Strange journeyings! Wherever beauty dwells,
In gulph or aerie, mountains or deep dells,
In light, in gloom, in star or blazing sun,
Thou pointest out the way, and straight ’tis won.

 

When the poet interrupts for a passing moment his tale of the might and mysteries of love, celestial or human, and turns to images of war, we find, him able to condense the whole tragedy of the sack of Troy into three potent lines,—

The woes of Troy, towers smothering o’er their blaze,
Stiff-holden shields, far-piercing spears, keen blades,
Struggling, and blood, and shrieks.

 

From a passage like the following any reasonably sympathetic reader of Keats’s day, running through the poem to find what manner and variety of promise it might contain, should have augured well of another kind of power, the dramatic and ironic, to be developed in due time. The speaker is the detected witch Circe uttering the doom of her revolted lover Glaucus:—

‘Ha! ha! Sir Dainty! there must be a nurse
Made of rose leaves and thistledown, express,
To cradle thee, my sweet, and lull thee: yes,
I am too flinty-hard for thy nice touch:
My tenderest squeeze is but a giant’s clutch.
So, fairy-thing, it shall have lullabies
Unheard of yet: and it shall still its cries
Upon some breast more lily-feminine.
Oh, no—it shall not pine, and pine, and pine
More than one pretty, trifling thousand years.
… Mark me! Thou hast thews
Immortal, for thou art of heavenly race:
But such a love is mine, that here I chase
Eternally away from thee all bloom
Of youth, and destine thee towards a tomb.
Hence shalt thou quickly to the watery vast;
And there, ere many days be overpast,
Disabled age shall seize thee: and even then
Thou shalt not go the way of aged men;
But live and wither, cripple and still breathe
Ten hundred years: which gone, I then bequeath
Thy fragile bones to unknown burial.
Adieu, sweet love, adieu!’

 

A vein very characteristic of Keats at this stage of his mind’s growth is that of figurative confession or self-revelation. Many passages in Endymion give poetical expression to the same alternating moods of ambition and humility, of exhilaration, depression, or apathy, which he confides to his friends in his letters. One of the most striking and original of these pieces of figurative psychology studied from his own moods is the description of the Cave of Quietude in Book IV:—

                                      There lies a den,
Beyond the seeming confines of the space
Made for the soul to wander in and trace
Its own existence, of remotest glooms.
Dark regions are around it, where the tombs
Of buried griefs the spirit sees, but scarce
One hour doth linger weeping, for the pierce
Of new-born woe it feels more inly smart:
And in these regions many a venom’d dart
At random flies; they are the proper home
Of every ill: the man is yet to come
Who hath not journeyed in this native hell.
But few have ever felt how calm and well
Sleep may be had in that deep den of all.
There anguish does not sting; nor pleasure pall:
Woe-hurricanes beat ever at the gate,
Yet all is still within and desolate.
                                … Enter none
Who strive therefore: on the sudden it is won.

 

To the student of Endymion there are few things more interesting than to observe Keats’s technical and spiritual relations to his Elizabethan models in those places where he has one or another of them manifestly in remembrance. Here is the passage in Sandys’s Ovid which tells how Cybele, the Earth-Mother, punished the pair of lovers Hippomenes and Atalanta for the pollution of her sanctuary by turning them into lions and yoking them to her car:—

 

The Mother, crown’d
With towers, had struck them to the Stygian sound,
But that she thought that punishment too small.
When yellow manes on their smooth shoulders fall;
Their arms, to legs; their fingers turn to nails;
Their breasts of wondrous strength: their tufted tails
Whisk up the dust; their looks are full of dread;
For speech they roar: the woods become their bed.
These Lions, fear’d by others, Cybel checks
With curbing bits, and yokes their stubborn necks.

This is a typical example of Ovid’s brilliantly clever, quite unromantic, unsurprised, and as it were unblinking way of detailing the marvels of an act of transformation. Keats’s recollection of it—and probably also of a certain engraving after a Roman altar-relief of Cybele and her yoked lions—inspires a vision of intense imaginative life expressed in verse of a noble solemnity and sonority:—

Forth from a rugged arch, in the dusk below,
Came mother Cybele! alone—alone—
In sombre chariot; dark foldings thrown
About her majesty, and front death-pale,
With turrets crown’d. Four maned lions hale
The sluggish wheels; solemn their toothed maws,
Their surly eyes brow-hidden, heavy paws
Uplifted drowsily, and nervy tails
Cowering their tawny brushes. Silent sails
This shadowy queen athwart, and faints away
In another gloomy arch. 

The four lions instead of two must be a whim of Keats’s imagination, and finds no authority either from Ovid or from ancient sculpture. Should any reader wish to pursue farther the comparison between Ovid in the Metamorphoses and Keats in Endymion, let him turn to the passage of Ovid where Polyphemus tells Galatea what rustic treasures he will lavish upon her if she will be his,—the same passage from which is derived the famous song in Handel’s Acis and Galatea: let him turn to this and compare it with the list of similar delights offered by Endymion to the Indian maiden when he is bent on forgoing his dreams of a celestial union for her sake, and he will see how they are dematerialized and refined yet at the same time made richer in colour and enchantment.

But let us for our purpose rather take, as illustrating the relations of Keats to his classic and Elizabethan sources, two of the incidental lyrics in his poem. There are four such lyrics in Endymion altogether. Two of them are of small account,—the hymn to Neptune and Venus at the end of the third book, and the song of the Constellations in the middle of the fourth. The other two, the hymn to Pan in Book I and the song of the Indian maiden in Book IV, are among Keats’s very finest achievements. The hymn to Pan is especially interesting in comparison with two of Keats’s Elizabethan sources, Chapman’s translation of the Homeric hymn and Ben Jonson’s original hymns in his masque of Pan’s Anniversary. Here is part of the Homeric hymn according to Chapman:—

Sing, Muse, this chief of Hermes’ love-got joys,
Goat-footed, two-horn’d, amorous of noise,
That through the fair greens, all adorn’d with trees,
Together goes with Nymphs, whose nimble knees
Can every dance foot, that affect to scale
The most inaccessible tops of all
Uprightest rocks, and ever use to call
On Pan, the bright-haired God of pastoral;
Who yet is lean and loveless, and doth owe
By lot all loftiest mountains crown’d with snow;
All tops of hills, and cliffy highnesses,
All sylvan copses, and the fortresses
Of thorniest queaches here and there doth rove,
And sometimes, by allurement of his love,
Will wade the wat’ry softnesses. Sometimes
(In quite oppos’d capriccios) he climbs
The hardest rocks, and highest, every way
Running their ridges. Often will convey
Himself up to a watch-tow’r’s top, where sheep
Have their observance. Oft through hills as steep
His goats he runs upon, and never rests.
Then turns he head, and flies on savage beasts,
Mad of their slaughters…
(When Hesp’rus calls to fold the flocks of men)
From the green closets of his loftiest reeds
He rushes forth, and joy with song he feeds.
When, under shadow of their motions set,
He plays a verse forth so profoundly sweet,
As not the bird that in the flow’ry spring,
Amidst the leaves set, makes the thickets ring
Of her sour sorrows, sweeten’d with her song,
Runs her divisions varied so and strong.

And here are two of the most characteristic strophes from Ben Jonson’s hymns:—

Pan is our all, by him we breathe, we live,
We move, we are; ’tis he our lambs doth rear,
Our flocks doth bless, and from the store doth give
The warm and finer fleeces that we wear.
He keeps away all heats and colds,
Drives all diseases from our folds:
Makes every where the spring to dwell,
The ewes to feed, their udders swell;
But if he frown, the sheep (alas)
The shepherds wither, and the grass.
Strive, strive to please him then by still increasing thus
The rites are due to him, who doth all right for us.
···········
Great Pan, the father of our peace and pleasure,
Who giv’st us all this leisure,
Hear what thy hallowed troop of herdsmen pray
For this their holy-day,
And how their vows to thee they in Lycæum pay.
So may our ewes receive the mounting rams,
And we bring thee the earliest of our lambs:
So may the first of all our fells be thine,
And both the breastning of our goats and kine.
As thou our folds dost still secure,
And keep’st our fountains sweet and pure,
Driv’st hence the wolf, the tod, the brock,
Or other vermin from the flock.
That we preserv’d by thee, and thou observ’d by us,
May both live safe in shade of thy lov’d Maenalus.

Comparing these strophes with the hymn in Endymion, we shall realize how the Elizabethan pastoral spirit, compounded as it was of native English love of country pleasures and Renaissance delight in classic poetry, emerged after near two centuries’ occultation to reappear in the poetry of Keats, but wonderfully strengthened in imaginative reach and grasp, richer and more romantic both in the delighted sense of nature’s blessings and activities and in the awed apprehension of a vast mystery behind them. The sense of such mystery is nowhere else expressed by Keats with such brooding inwardness and humbleness as where he invokes Pan no longer as a shepherd’s god but as a symbol of the World-All. Wordsworth, when Keats at the request of friends read the piece to him, could see, or would own to seeing, nothing in it but a ‘pretty piece of paganism,’ though indeed in the more profoundly felt and imagined lines, such as those with which the first and fifth strophes open, the inspiration can be traced in great part to the influence of Wordsworth himself:—

 

O Thou, whose mighty palace roof doth hang
From jagged trunks, and overshadoweth
Eternal whispers, glooms, the birth, life, death
Of unseen flowers in heavy peacefulness;
Who lov’st to see the hamadryads dress
Their ruffled locks where meeting hazels darken;
And through whole solemn hours dost sit, and hearken
The dreary melody of bedded reeds—
In desolate places, where dank moisture breeds
The pipy hemlock to strange overgrowth;
Bethinking thee, how melancholy loth
Thou wast to lose fair Syrinx—do thou now,
By thy love’s milky brow!
By all the trembling mazes that she ran,
Hear us, great Pan!

O thou, for whose soul-soothing quiet, turtles
Passion their voices cooingly ‘mong myrtles,
What time thou wanderest at eventide
Through sunny meadows, that outskirt the side
Of thine enmossed realms: O thou, to whom
Broad leaved fig trees even now foredoom
Their ripen’d fruitage; yellow girted bees
Their golden honeycombs; our village leas
Their fairest blossom’d beans and poppied corn;
The chuckling linnet its five young unborn,
To sing for thee; low creeping strawberries
Their summer coolness; pent up butterflies
Their freckled wings; yea, the fresh budding year
All its completions—be quickly near,
By every wind that nods the mountain pine,
O forester divine!

Thou, to whom every faun and satyr flies
For willing service; whether to surprise

The squatted hare while in half sleeping fit;
Or upward ragged precipices flit
To save poor lambkins from the eagle’s maw;
Or by mysterious enticement draw
Bewildered shepherds to their path again;
Or to tread breathless round the frothy main,
And gather up all fancifullest shells
For thee to tumble into Naiads’ cells,
And being hidden, laugh at their out-peeping;
Or to delight thee with fantastic leaping,
The while they pelt each other on the crown
With silvery oak apples, and fir cones brown—
By all the echoes that about thee ring,
Hear us, O satyr king!

O Hearkener to the loud clapping shears,
While ever and anon to his shorn peers
A ram goes bleating: Winder of the horn,
When snouted wild-boars routing tender corn
Anger our huntsmen: Breather round our farms,
To keep off mildews, and all weather harms:
Strange ministrant of undescribed sounds,
That come a swooning over hollow grounds,
And wither drearily on barren moors: (3)
Dread opener of the mysterious doors
Leading to universal knowledge—see,
Great son of Dryope,
The many that are come to pay their vows
With leaves about their brows!

Be still the unimaginable lodge
For solitary thinkings; such as dodge
Conception to the very bourne of heaven,
Then leave the naked brain; be still the leaven,
That spreading in this dull and clodded earth
Gives it a touch ethereal—a new birth:
Be still a symbol of immensity;
A firmament reflected in a sea;
An element filling the space between;
An unknown—but no more: we humbly screen
With uplift hands our foreheads, lowly bending,
And giving out a shout most heaven rending,
Conjure thee to receive our humble Paean,
Upon thy Mount Lycean!

The song of the Indian maiden in the fourth book is in a very different key from this, more strikingly original in form and conception, and but for a weak opening and one or two flaws of taste would be a masterpiece. Keats’s later and more famous lyrics, though they have fewer faults, yet do not, to my mind at least, show a command over such various sources of imaginative and musical effect, or touch so thrillingly so many chords of the spirit. A mood of tender irony and wistful pathos like that of the best Elizabethan love-songs; a sense as keen as Heine’s of the immemorial romance of India and the East; a power like that of Coleridge, and perhaps partly caught from him, of evoking the remotest weird and beautiful associations almost with a word; clear visions of Greek beauty and wild wood-notes of northern imagination; all these elements come here commingled, yet in a strain perfectly individual. Keats calls the piece a ‘roundelay,’—a form which it only so far resembles that its opening measures are repeated at the close. It begins by invoking and questioning sorrow in a series of dreamy musical stanzas of which the imagery embodies, a little redundantly and confusedly, the idea expressed elsewhere by Keats with greater perfection, that it is Sorrow which confers upon beautiful things their richest beauty. From these the song passes to tell what has happened to the singer:—

To Sorrow,
I bade good-morrow,
And thought to leave her far away behind;
But cheerly, cheerly,
She loves me dearly;
She is so constant to me, and so kind:
I would deceive her
And so leave her,
But ah! she is so constant and so kind. 
Beneath my palm tree, by the river side,
I sat a weeping: in the whole world wide
There was no one to ask me why I wept,—
And so I kept
Brimming the water-lily cups with tears
Cold as my fears.
Beneath my palm trees, by the river side,
I sat a weeping: what enamour’d bride,
Cheated by shadowy wooer from the clouds,
But hides and shrouds
Beneath dark palm trees by a river side?

It is here that we seem to catch an echo, varied and new-modulated but in no sense weakened, from Coleridge’s Kubla Khan,—

A savage place, as holy as enchanted
As e’er beneath the waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover.

 

Then, with another change of measure comes the deserted maiden’s tale of the irruption of Bacchus on his march from India; and then, arranged as if for music, the challenge of the maiden to the Maenads and satyrs and their choral answers:—

‘Whence came ye, merry Damsels! Whence came ye!
So many and so many, and such glee?
Why have ye left your bowers desolate,
Your lutes, and gentler fate?’
‘We follow Bacchus! good or ill betide,
We dance before him thorough kingdoms wide:
Come hither, lady fair, and joined be
To our wild minstrelsy!’
‘Whence came ye jolly Satyrs! Whence came ye!
So many, and so many, and such glee?
Why have ye left your forest haunts, why left
Your nuts in oak-tree cleft?’
‘For wine, for wine we left our kernel tree;
For wine we left our heath, and yellow brooms,
And cold mushrooms;
For wine we follow Bacchus through the earth;
Great God of breathless cups and chirping mirth!
Come hither, lady fair, and joined be
To our mad minstrelsy!’ 
‘Over wide streams and mountains great we went,
And save when Bacchus kept his ivy tent,
Onward the tiger and the leopard pants,
With Asian elephants:
Onward these myriads—with song and dance,
With zebras striped, and sleek Arabians’ prance,
Web-footed alligators, crocodiles,
Bearing upon their scaly backs, in files,
Plump infant laughers mimicking the coil
Of seamen, and stout galley-rowers’ toil:
With toying oars and silken sails they glide,
Nor care for wind and tide.


FROM A SARCOPHAGUS RELIEF AT WOBURN ABBEY
‘Onward the tiger and the leopard pants With Asian elephants’

It is usually said that this description of Bacchus and his rout was suggested by Titian’s famous picture of Bacchus and Ariadne (after Catullus) which is now in the National Gallery, and which Severn took Keats to see when it was exhibited at the British Institution in 1816. But this will account for a part at most of Keats’s vision. Tiger and leopard panting along with Asian elephants on the march are not present in that picture, nor anything like them. Keats might have found suggestions for them in the text both of Godwin’s little handbook just quoted and in Spence’s Polymetis: but it would have been much more like him to work from something seen with his eyes: and these animals, with Indian prisoners mounted on the elephants, are invariable features of the triumphal processions of Bacchus through India as represented on a certain well-known type of ancient sarcophagus. From direct sight of such sarcophagus reliefs or prints after such Keats, I feel sure, must have taken them, (4) while the children mounted on crocodiles may have been drawn from the plinth of the famous ancient recumbent statue of the Nile, and the pigmy rowers, in all likelihood, from certain reliefs which Keats will have noticed in the Townley collection at the British Museum: so that the whole brilliant picture is a composite (as we shall see later was the case with the Grecian Urn) which had shaped itself from various sources in Keats’s imagination and become more real than any reality to his mind’s eye. But I am holding up the reader, with this digression as to sources, from the fine rush of verse with which the lyric sweeps on to tell how the singer dropped out of the train of Bacchus to wander alone into the Carian forest, and finally, returning to the opening motive, ends as it began with an exquisite strain of lovelorn pathos:—

Come then, sorrow!
Sweetest sorrow!
Like an own babe I nurse thee on my breast:
I thought to leave thee,
And deceive thee,
But now of all the world I love thee best.
There is not one,
No, no, not one
But thee to comfort a poor lonely maid;
Thou art her mother
And her brother,
Her playmate, and her wooer in the shade.

An intensely vital imaginative feeling, such as can afford to dispense with scholarship, for the spirit of Greek and Greco-Asiatic myths and cults inspires these lyrics respectively; and strangely enough the result seems in neither case a whit impaired by the fact that the nature-images Keats invokes in them are almost purely English. Bean-fields in blossom and poppies among the corn, hemlock growing in moist places by the brookside, field mushrooms with the morning dew upon them, cowslips and strawberries and the song of linnets, oak, hazel and flowering broom, holly trees smothered from view under the summer leafage of chestnuts, these are the things of nature that he has loved and lived with from a child, and his imagination cannot help importing the same delights not only into the forest haunts of Pan but into the regions ranged over by Bacchus with his train of yoked tiger and panther, of elephant, crocodile and zebra.

Contemporary influences as well as Elizabethan and Jacobean are naturally discernible in the poem. The strongest and most permeating is that of Wordsworth, not so much to be traced in actual echoes of his words, though these of course occur, as in adoptions of his general spirit. We have recognized a special instance in that deep and brooding sense of mystery, of ‘something far more deeply interfused,’ of the working of an unknown spiritual force behind appearances, which finds expression in the hymn to Pan. Endymion’s prayer to Cynthia from underground in the second book will be found to run definitely and closely parallel with Wordsworth’s description of the huntress Diana in his account of the origin of Greek myths (see above, pp. 125-6). When Keats likens the many-tinted mists enshrouding the litter of Sleep to the fog on the top of Skiddaw from which the travellers may

With an eye-guess towards some pleasant vale
Descry a favourite hamlet faint and far,

 

we know that his imagination is answering to a stimulus supplied by Wordsworth. But it is for the undercurrent of ethical symbolism in Endymion that Keats will have owed the most to that master. Both Shelley and he had been profoundly impressed by the reading of The Excursion, published when Shelley was in his twenty-second year and Keats in his nineteenth, and each in his own way had taken deeply to heart Wordsworth’s inculcation, both in that poem and many others, of the doctrine that a poet must learn to go out of himself and to live and feel as a man among fellow men,—that it is a kind of spiritual suicide for him to attempt to live apart from human sympathies,

Housed in a dream, at distance from the Kind!

A large part of Endymion, as we have seen, is devoted to the symbolical setting forth of this conviction. For the rest, that essential contrast between the mental processes and poetic methods of the elder and the younger man which we have noted in discussing Keats’s first volume continues to strike us in the second. In interpreting the relations of man to the natural world, Wordsworth’s poetry is intensely personal and ‘subjective,’ Keats’s intensely impersonal and ‘objective.’ Wordsworth expounds, Keats evokes: the mind of Wordsworth works by strenuous after-meditation on his experiences of life and nature and their effect upon his own soul and consciousness: the mind of Keats works by instantaneous imaginative participation, instinctive and self-oblivious, in nature’s doings and beings, especially those which make for human refreshment and delight.

The second contemporary influence to be considered is that of Shelley. Shelley’s Alastor, it will be remembered, published early in 1816, had been praised by Hunt in The Examiner for December of that year, and in the following January Hunt printed in the same paper Shelley’s Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. In the course of that same December and January Keats had seen a good deal of Shelley at Hunt’s and taken part with him in many talks on poetry. It is certain that Keats read and was impressed by Alastor: doubtless he also read the Hymn. How much did either or both influence him in the composition of Endymion? Mr Andrew Bradley thinks he sees evidence that Alastor influenced him strongly. That poem is a parable, as Endymion is, of the adventures of a poet’s soul; and it enforces, as much of Endymion does, the doctrine that a poet cannot without ruin to himself live in isolation from human sympathies. But there the resemblance between the two conceptions really ends. In Alastor the poet, having lived in solitary communion ‘with all that is most beautiful and august in nature and in human thought and the world’s past’ (the words are Shelley’s own prose summary of the imagined experiences which the first part of the poem relates in splendid verse), is suddenly awakened, by a love-vision which comes to him in a dream, to the passionate desire of finding and mating with a kindred soul, the living counterpart of his dream, who shall share with him the delight of such communion. The desire, ever unsatisfied, turns all his former joys to ashes, and drives him forth by unheard-of ways through monstrous wildernesses until he pines and dies, or in the strained Shelleyan phrase, ‘Blasted by his disappointment, he descends into an untimely grave.’ The essence of the theme is the quest of the poetic soul for perfect spiritual sympathy and its failure to discover what it seeks. Shelley does not make it fully clear whether the ideal of his poet’s dream is a purely abstract entity, an incarnation of the collective response which he hopes, but fails, to find from his fellow creatures at large; or whether, or how far, he is transcendentally expressing his own personal longing for an ideally sympathetic soul-companion in the shape of woman. Both strains no doubt enter into his conception; so far as the private strain comes in, many passages of his life furnish a mournfully ironic comment on his dream. But in any case his conception is fundamentally different from that of Keats inEndymion. The essence of Keats’s task is to set forth the craving of the poet for full communion with the essential spirit of Beauty in the world, and the discipline by which he is led, through the exercise of the active human sympathies and the toilsome acquisition of knowledge, to the prosperous and beatific achievement of his quest.

It is rather the preface to Alastor than the poem itself which we can trace as having really worked in the mind of Keats. In it the evil fate of those who shut themselves out from human sympathies is very eloquently set forth, in a passage which is only partly relevant to the design of the poem, inasmuch as its warning is addressed not only to the poet in particular but to human beings in general. The passage may have had some influence on Keats when he framed the scheme of Endymion: what is certain is that we shall find its thoughts and even its words recurring forcibly to his mind in an hour of despondency some thirty months later: let us therefore postpone its consideration until then. For the rest, it is not difficult to show correspondence between some of the descriptive passages of Alastor and Endymion, especially those telling of the natural and architectural marvels amid which the heroes wander. Endymion’s wanderings we are fresh from tracing. Alastor before him had wandered—

where the secret caves
Rugged and dark, winding amid the springs
Of fire and poison, inaccessible
To avarice or pride, their starry domes
Of diamond and of gold expand above
Numerous and immeasurable halls,
Frequent with crystal columns, and clear shrines
Of pearl, and thrones radiant with chrysolite.

 

But these are the kind of visions which may rise spontaneously in common in the minds of almost any pair of youthful dreamers. Shelley’s poetic style is of course as much sounder and less experimental than that of Keats at this time as his range and certainty of penetrating and vivifying imagination are, to my apprehension at least, less: he had a trained and scholarly feeling both for the resources of the language and for its purity, and Keats might have learnt much from him as to what he should avoid. But as we have seen, Keats was firmly on his guard against letting any outside influence affect his own development, and would not visit Shelley at Marlow during the composition of Endymion, in order ‘that he might have his own unfettered scope’ and that the spirit of poetry might work out its own salvation in him.

As to the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, written though it was by Shelley under the fresh impression of the glory of the Alps and also in the first flush of his acquaintance with and enthusiasm for Plato, I think Keats would have felt its strain of aspiration and invocation too painful, too near despair, to make much appeal to him, and that Shelley’s

Spirit of Beauty, that dost consecrate
With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon,

 

would have seemed to him something abstract, remote, and uncomforting. His own imagination insisted on the existence of something in the ultimate nature of the universe to account for what he calls the ‘wild and harmonised tune’ which he found his spirit striking from all the scattered and broken beauties of the world. Vague and floating his conception of that something might be, but it was extraordinarily intense, partaking of the concentrated essence of a thousand thrilling joys of perception and imagination. He had read no Plato, though he was of course familiar enough with Spenser’s mellifluous dilution of Platonic and neo-Platonic doctrine in his four Hymns. In Endymion, as in the speculative passages of the letters we have quoted, his mind has to go adventuring for itself among those ancient, for him almost uncharted, mysteries of Love and Beauty. He does not as yet conceive himself capable of anything more than steppings, to repeat his own sober phrase, of the imagination towards truth. He does not light, he does not expect to light, upon revelations of truth abstract or formal, and seems to waver between the Adam’s dream idea of finding in some transcendental world all the several modes of earthly happiness ‘repeated in a finer tone’ but yet retaining their severalness, and an idea, nearer to the Platonic, of a single principle of absolute or abstract Beauty, the object of a purged and perfected spiritual contemplation, from which all the varieties of beauty experienced on earth derive their quality and oneness. But in his search he strikes now and again, for the attentive reader, notes of far reaching symbolic significance that carry the mind to the verge of the great mysteries of things: he takes us with him on exploratory sweeps and fetches of figurative thought in regions almost beyond the reach of words, where we gain with him glimmering adumbrations of the super-sensual through distilled and spiritualized remembrance of the joys of sense-perception at their most intense.

So much for Keats’s possible debt to Shelley in regard to Endymion. There is an interesting small debt to be recorded on the other side, which critics, I think, have hitherto failed to notice. Shelley, notwithstanding his interest in Keats, did not read Endymion till a year or more after its publication. He had in the meantime gone to live in Italy, and having had the volume sent out to him at Leghorn, writes: ‘much praise is due to me for having read it, the author’s intention appearing to be that no person should possibly get to the end of it. Yet it is full of the highest and finest gleams of poetry: indeed, everything seems to be viewed by the mind of a poet which is described in it. I think if he had printed about fifty pages of fragments from it, I should have been led to admire Keats as a poet more than I ought, of which there is now no danger.’ Nothing can be more just; and in the same spirit eight months later, in May 1820, he writes, ‘Keats, I hope, is going to show himself a great poet; like the sun, to burst through the clouds, which, though dyed in the finest colours of the air, obscured his rising.’ About the same time, having heard of Keats’s hæmorrhage and sufferings and of their supposed cause in the hostility of the Tory critics, Shelley drafted, but did not send, his famous indignant letter to the editor of the Quarterly Review. In this draft he shows himself a careful student of Endymion by pointing out particular passages for approval. One of these passages is that near the beginning of the third book describing the wreckage seen by the hero as he traversed the ocean floor before meeting Glaucus. Everybody knows, in Shakespeare’s Richard III, Clarence’s dream of being drowned and of what he saw below the sea:—

What dreadful noise of waters in mine ears!
What ugly sights of death within mine eyes!
Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;
Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw’d upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatter’d in the bottom of the sea.

 

Keats, no doubt remembering, and in a sense challenging, this passage, wrote,—

Far had he roam’d,
With nothing save the hollow vast, that foam’d,
Above, around, and at his feet; save things
More dead than Morpheus’ imaginings:
Old rusted anchors, helmets, breast-plates large
Of gone sea-warriors; brazen beaks and targe;
Rudders that for a hundred years had lost
The sway of human hand; gold vase emboss’d
With long-forgotten story, and wherein
No reveller had ever dipp’d a chin
But those of Saturn’s vintage; mouldering scrolls,
Writ in the tongue of heaven, by those souls
Who first were on the earth; and sculptures rude
In ponderous stone, developing the mood
Of ancient Nox;—then skeletons of man,
Of beast, behemoth, and leviathan,
And elephant, and eagle, and huge jaw
Of nameless monster.

Jeffrey in his review of the Lamia volume has a fine phrase about this passage. It ‘comes of no ignoble lineage,’ he says, ‘nor shames its high descent.’ How careful Shelley’s study of the passage had been, and how completely he had assimilated it, is proved by his, doubtless quite unconscious, reproduction and amplification of it in the fourth act of Prometheus Unbound, which he added as an afterthought to the rest of the poem in December 1819. The wreckage described is not that of the sea, but that which the light flashing from the forehead of the infant Earth-spirit reveals at the earth’s centre.

The beams flash on
And make appear the melancholy ruins
Of cancelled cycles; anchors, beaks of ships;
Planks turned to marble; quivers, helms, and spears,
And gorgon-headed targes, and the wheels
Of scythèd chariots, and the emblazonry
Of trophies, standards, and armorial beasts,
Round which death laughed, sepulchred emblems
Of dead destruction, ruin within ruin!
The wrecks beside of many a city vast,
Whose population which the earth grew over
Was mortal, but not human; see, they lie,
Their monstrous works, and uncouth skeletons,
Their statues, homes and fanes; prodigious shapes
Huddled in gray annihilation, split,
Jammed in the hard, black deep; and over these,
The anatomies of unknown wingèd things,
And fishes which were isles of living scale,
And serpents, bony chains, twisted around
The iron crags, or within heaps of dust
To which the tortuous strength of their last pangs
Had crushed the iron crags; and over these
The jaggèd alligator, and the might
Of earth-convulsing behemoth, which once
Were monarch beasts.

 

 

The derivation of this imagery from the passage of Keats seems evident alike from its general conception and sequence and from details like the anchors, beaks, targes, the prodigious primeval sculptures, the skeletons of behemoth and alligator and antediluvian monsters without name. Another possible debt of Shelley to Endymion has also been suggested in the list of delights which the poet, in the closing passage of Epipsychidion, proposes to share with his spirit’s mate in their imagined island home in the Ægean. If Shelley indeed owes anything to Endymion here, he has etherealized and transcendentalized his original even more than Keats did Ovid. Possibly, it may also be suggested, it may have been Shelley’s reading of Endymion that led him at this time to take two of the myths handled in it by Keats as subjects for his own two lyrics, Arethusa and the Hymn to Pan (both of 1820); but he may just as well have thought of these subjects independently; and in any case they are absolutely in his own vein, nor was their exquisite leaping and liquid lightness of rhythm a thing at any time within Keats’s compass. It would be tempting to attribute to a desire of emulating and improving on Keats Shelley’s beautifully accomplished use of the rimed couplet with varied pause and free overflow in the Epistle to Maria Gisborne (1819) and Epipsychidion (1820), but that he had already made a first experiment in the same kind with Julian and Maddalo, written before his copy of Endymion had reached him, so that we must take his impulse in the matter to have been drawn not intermediately through Keats but direct from Leigh Hunt.

 


(1) Why will my friend Professor Saintsbury, in range of reading and industry the master of us all, insist on trying to persuade us that in the metre of Endymion Keats owed something to the Pharonnida of William Chamberlayne? There is absolutely no metrical usage in Keats’s poem for which his familiar Elizabethan and Jacobean masters do not furnish ample precedent: he differs from them only in taking more special care to avoid any prolonged run of closed couplets. I do not believe he could have brought himself to read two pages of Pharonnida. But that is only an opinion, and the matter can be decided by a simple computation on the fingers. The fact is that there are no five pages of Pharonnida which do not contain more of those unfortunate rimings on ‘in’ and ‘by’ and ‘to’ and ‘on’ and ‘of’ followed by their nouns in the next line, or worse still, on ‘to’ followed by its infinitive,—on ‘it’ and ‘than’ and ‘be’ and ‘which,’ and all the featherweight particles and prepositions and auxiliaries and relatives impossible to stress or pause on for a moment,—than can be found in any whole book of Endymion. It is also a fact that the average proportion of lines not ending with a comma or other pause is in Pharonnida about ten to one, and in Endymion not more than two and a half to one. That the sentence-structure ofPharonnida is as detestably disjointed and invertebrate as that of Endymion is graceful and well-articulated I hesitate to insist, because that again is a matter of ear and feeling, and not, like my other points, of sheer arithmetic.

(2) The flaw here is of course the use of the forced rime-word ‘unseam.’ The only authority for the word is Shakespeare, who uses it in Macbeth, in a sufficiently different sense and context—

‘Till he unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps.’

 

The vision in Keats’s mind was probably of a track dividing, or as it were ripping apart, the two sides of a valley.

(3) ‘All the strange, mysterious and unaccountable sounds which were heard in solitary places, were attributed to Pan, the God of rural scenery’ (Baldwin’s Pantheon, ed. 1806, p. 104). Keats possessed a copy of this well-felt and well-written little primer of mythology, by William Godwin the philosopher writing under the pseudonym Edward Baldwin; and the above is only one of several suggestions directly due to it which are to be found in his poetry.

(4) Two classes of sarcophaguses are concerned, those figuring the triumph of Bacchus and Hercules with their Indian captives, and those which show the march of Silenus and his rout of fauns and maenads. Now it so happens that an excellent original of each class, and with them also a fine Endymion sarcophagus, had been bought by the Duke of Bedford from the Villa Aldobrandini in 1815 and were set up in his grand new gallery at Woburn five years later. Where they were housed in the meanwhile is not recorded, but wherever it was Haydon could easily have obtained access to them, (the Duke’s agent in the purchase having been also secretary to Lord Elgin) and I cannot resist the conviction, purely conjectural as it is, that Keats must have seen them in Haydon’s company some time in the winter of 1816/17, and drawn inspiration from them both in this and some other passages of Endymion. The Triumph relief is the richest extant of its class, especially in its multitude of sporting children: see plate opposite.

 

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