CHAPTER VIII (About John Keats by Sidney Colvin)
DECEMBER 1817-JUNE 1818: HAMPSTEAD AND TEIGNMOUTH: EMIGRATION OF GEORGE KEATS
Hampstead again: stage criticism—Hazlitt’s lectures—Life at Well Walk—Meeting with Wordsworth—The ‘immortal dinner’—Lamb forgets himself—More of Wordsworth—A happy evening—Wordsworth on Bacchus—Disillusion and impatience—Winter letters—Maxims and reflections—Quarrels among friends—Haydon, Hunt and Shelley—A prolific February—Rants and sonnets—A haunting memory—Six weeks at Teignmouth—Soft weather and soft men—Isabella or the Pot of Basil—Rich correspondence—Epistle to Reynolds—Thirst for knowledge—Need of experience—The two chambers of thought—Summer plans—Preface to Endymion—A family break-up—To Scotland with Brown.
From finishing Endymion at Burford Bridge Keats returned some time before mid-December to his Hampstead lodging. The exact date is uncertain; but it was in time to see Kean play Richard III at Drury Lane on the 15th—the actor’s first performance after a break of some weeks due to illness. J. H. Reynolds had gone to Exeter for a Christmas holiday, and Keats, acting as his substitute, wrote four dramatic criticisms for the Champion: the first, printed on December 21, on Kean in general and his re-appearance as Richard III in particular; a second on a hash of the three parts of Shakespeare’s Henry VI produced under the titleRichard Duke of York, with Kean in the name-part and probably Kean also as compiler; a third on a tragedy of small account by one Dillon, called Retribution, or the Chieftain’s Daughter, in which the young Macready played the part of the villain; and a fourth on a pantomime of Don Giovanni. No one, least of all one living in Keats’s circle, could well attempt stage criticism at this time without trying to write like Hazlitt. Keats acquits himself on the whole rather youthfully and crudely. In one point he is cruder than one would have expected, and that is where, after re-reading the three parts of Henry VI for his purpose, he retracts what he had begun to say about them and declares that they are ‘perfect works,’ apparently without any suspicion that Shakespeare’s part in them is at most that of a beginner of genius touching up the hackwork of others with a fine passage here and there.
It is only in the notice of Kean as Richard III that the genius in Keats really kindles. Here his imagination teaches him phrases beyond the reach of Hazlitt, to express (there is nothing more difficult) the specific quality and very thrill of the actor’s voice and utterance. The whole passage is of special interest, both what is groping in it and what is masterly, and alike for itself and for such points as its familiar use of tags from the then recent Christabel and Siege of Corinth:—
A melodious passage in poetry is full of pleasures both sensual and spiritual. The spiritual is felt when the very letters and points of charactered language show like the hieroglyphics of beauty; the mysterious signs of our immortal free-masonry! ‘A thing to dream of, not to tell’! The sensual life of verse springs warm from the lips of Kean and to one learned in Shakespearian hieroglyphics—learned in the spiritual portion of those lines to which Kean adds a sensual grandeur; his tongue must seem to have robbed the Hybla bees and left them honeyless! There is an indescribable gusto in his voice, by which we feel that the utterer is thinking of the past and future while speaking of the instant. When he says in Othello, ‘Put up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them,’ we feel that his throat had commanded where swords were as thick as reeds. From eternal risk, he speaks as though his body were unassailable. Again, his exclamation of ‘blood, blood, blood!’ is direful and slaughterous to the deepest degree; the very words appear stained and gory. His nature hangs over them, making a prophetic repast. The voice is loosed on them, like the wild dog on the savage relics of an eastern conflict; and we can distinctly hear it ‘gorging and growling o’er carcase and limb.’ In Richard, ‘Be stirring with the lark to-morrow, gentle Norfolk!’ comes from him as through the morning atmosphere towards which he yearns…. Surely this intense power of anatomizing the passions of every syllable, of taking to himself the airings of verse, is the means by which he becomes a storm with such fiery decision; and by which, with a still deeper charm, he does his spiriting gently. Other actors are continually thinking of their sum-total effect throughout a play. Kean delivers himself up to the instant feeling, without a shadow of a thought about anything else. He feels his being as deeply as Wordsworth, or any other of our intellectual monopolists. From all his comrades he stands alone, reminding us of him, whom Dante has so finely described in his Hell:
and sole apart retir’d the Soldan fierce. (1)
Although so many times he has lost the battle of Bosworth Field, we can easily conceive him really expectant of victory, and a different termination of the piece.
Keats was by this time left alone in Well Walk, having seen his brothers off for Teignmouth, whither George carried the invalid Tom for change of climate. His regular occupation for the next two months was revising and copying out Endymion for press. Regular also was his attendance at Hazlitt’s evening lectures on the English Poets at the Surrey Institution. Of the lectures on Shakespeare which Coleridge was in the same weeks delivering in Fetter Lane Keats makes no mention, and it is clear that he made no effort to go and hear them, though the distance of the lecture-hall from his Hampstead lodging was so much less. The reader who would fain conjure up for himself the contrasted personalities and styles in public discourse of these two master critics, the shy and saturnine, yet vigorously straight-hitting and trenchantly effective Hazlitt, and the ramblingly mellifluous, sometimes beautifully inspired and sometimes painfully drug-beclouded Coleridge, can draw but a faint and tantalized satisfaction from the diaries of Henry Crabb Robinson, that assiduous friend and satellite of men of genius, who punctually records his attendance at both courses, but lacked the touch that should have made his record live.
Keats’s letters to his brothers in these winter months, with a few more to Bailey and Reynolds, give us lively glimpses of his social doings, and others, interesting in the extreme, of the inward growth and workings of his mind. He tells of a certain amount of common-place conviviality: an absurd dance and rackety supper at one Redhall’s; noisy Saturday ‘concerts’ at his own rooms, which means that two or three intimates came to early afternoon dinner and spent the rest of the day drinking claret and keeping up a concerted racket, each in imitation of some musical instrument (Keats himself of the bassoon); but of this pastime he soon got tired and rather ashamed. His social relations began to extend themselves more than he much cared about, or thought consistent with proper industry. We find him dining with Shelley’s friend, the genial and admirable stockbroker and man of letters Horace Smith, in company with some fashionable wits, concerning whom he reflects:—‘They only served to convince me how superior humour is to wit, in respect to enjoyment. These men say things which make one start, without making one feel; they are all alike; they all know fashionables; they have all a mannerism in their eating and drinking, in their mere handling a decanter. They talked of Kean and his low company. “Would I were with that company instead of yours,” said I to myself.’ Sunday evenings were for a while set apart for dining with Haydon, and here, on the last Sunday of the year, Keats met Wordsworth for the first time.
Wordsworth was on one of his rare visits to London, and had been staying since the beginning of December with his brother Christopher at Lambeth rectory. According to Crabb Robinson, he seems to have been in these weeks in one of his stiffest and most domineering moods of egotism, much ruffled by the moderate strictures of Coleridge in Biographia Literaria on certain qualities in his work and not at all appeased by the splendid praise which so much out-balanced them. One evening in conversation he went so far as to treat that great helpless genius, his old bosom-friend and inspirer, with a rudeness of contradiction which even the devoted Robinson found it hard to forgive.(2) Near about the same time, hearing that the next Waverley novel was to be about Rob Roy, he took down his ballad so named, read it aloud, and said ‘I do not know what more Mr Scott can have to say on the subject.’(3) Keats promptly had full experience of Wordsworth’s egotism, but also saw more genial aspects of his character. Quite coolly and briefly he mentions those circumstances of their first meeting which Haydon, in a famous passage of his autobiography, thrusts before us in the insistent colour and illumination of a magic-lantern picture. ‘I think,’ writes Keats, ‘Ritchie is going to Fezan in Africa; thence to proceed if possible like Mungo Park. Then there was Wordsworth, Lamb, Monkhouse, Landseer, and your humble servant. Lamb got tipsy and blew up Kingston—proceeding so far as to take the candle across the room, hold it to his face, and show us what a soft fellow he was.’ It should be explained that Ritchie was a young explorer whom Tom had met the summer before on his run to Paris, and Kingston a thick-witted, thick-skinned, intrusive but kindly gentleman of lion-hunting proclivities, who as Comptroller of Stamps had had some correspondence with Wordsworth and on the strength of this invited himself to join Haydon’s party in the poet’s honour. Now for Haydon:—
On December 28th the immortal dinner came off in my painting-room, with Jerusalem towering up behind us as a background. Wordsworth was in fine cue, and we had a glorious set-to,—on Homer, Shakespeare, Milton and Virgil. Lamb got exceedingly merry and exquisitely witty; and his fun in the midst of Wordsworth’s solemn intonations of oratory was like the sarcasm and wit of the fool in the intervals of Lear’s passion. He made a speech and voted me absent, and made them drink my health. ‘Now,’ said Lamb, ‘you old lake poet, you rascally poet, why do you call Voltaire dull?’ We all defended Wordsworth, and affirmed there was a state of mind when Voltaire would be dull. ‘Well,’ said Lamb, ‘here’s to Voltaire—the Messiah of the French nation, and a very proper one too.’
He then, in a strain of humour beyond description, abused me for putting Newton’s head into my picture,—‘a fellow,’ said he, ‘who believed nothing unless it was as clear as the three sides of a triangle. And then he and Keats agreed he had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colours. It was impossible to resist him, and we all drank ‘Newton’s health, and confusion to mathematics.’ It was delightful to see the good-humour of Wordsworth in giving in to all our frolics without affectation and laughing as heartily as the best of us.
By this time other friends joined, amongst them poor Ritchie who was going to penetrate by Fezzan to Timbuctoo. I introduced him to all as ‘a gentleman going to Africa.’ Lamb seemed to take no notice; but all of a sudden he roared out, ‘Which is the gentleman we are going to lose?’ We then drank the victim’s health, in which Ritchie joined.
In the morning of this delightful day, a gentleman, a perfect stranger, had called on me. He said he knew my friends, had an enthusiasm for Wordsworth and begged I would procure him the happiness of an introduction. He told me he was a comptroller of stamps, and often had correspondence with the poet. I thought it a liberty; but still, as he seemed a gentleman, I told him he might come.
When we retired to tea we found the comptroller. In introducing him to Wordsworth I forgot to say who he was. After a little time the comptroller looked down, looked up and said to Wordsworth, ‘Don’t you think, sir, Milton was a great genius?’ Keats looked at me, Wordsworth looked at the comptroller. Lamb who was dozing by the fire turned round and said, ‘Pray, sir, did you say Milton was a great genius?’ ‘No, sir; I asked Mr Wordsworth if he were not.’ ‘Oh,’ said Lamb, ‘then you are a silly fellow.’ ‘Charles! my dear Charles!’ said Wordsworth; but Lamb, perfectly innocent of the confusion he had created, was off again by the fire.
After an awful pause the comptroller said, ‘Don’t you think Newton a great genius?’ I could not stand it any longer; Keats put his head into my books. Ritchie squeezed in a laugh. Wordsworth seemed asking himself, ‘Who is this?’ Lamb got up, and taking a candle, said, ‘Sir, will you allow me to look at your phrenological development?’ He then turned his back on the poor man, and at every question of the comptroller he chaunted—
Diddle diddle dumpling, my son John
Went to bed with his breeches on.
The man in office, finding Wordsworth did not know who he was, said in a spasmodic and half-chuckling anticipation of assured victory, ‘I have had the honour of some correspondence with you, Mr Wordsworth.’ ‘With me, sir?’ said Wordsworth, ‘not that I remember.’ ‘Don’t you, sir? I am a comptroller of stamps.’ There was a dead silence;—the comptroller evidently thinking that was enough. While we were waiting for Wordsworth’s reply, Lamb sung out
Hey diddle diddle,
The cat and the fiddle.
‘My dear Charles!’ said Wordsworth,—
Diddle diddle dumpling, my son John,
chaunted Lamb, and then rising, exclaimed, ‘Do let me have another look at that gentleman’s organs.’ Keats and I hurried Lamb into the painting-room, shut the door and gave way to inextinguishable laughter. Monkhouse followed and tried to get Lamb away. We went back but the comptroller was irreconcilable. We soothed and smiled and asked him to supper. He stayed though his dignity was sorely affected. However, being a good-natured man, we parted all in good humour, and no ill effects followed.
All the while, until Monkhouse succeeded, we could hear Lamb struggling in the painting-room and calling at intervals, ‘Who is that fellow? Allow me to see his organs once more.’
It was indeed an immortal evening. Wordsworth’s fine intonation as he quoted Milton and Virgil, Keats’s eager inspired look, Lamb’s quaint sparkle of lambent humour, so speeded the stream of conversation, that in my life I never passed a more delightful time. All our fun was within bounds. Not a word passed that an apostle might not have listened to. It was a night worthy of the Elizabethan age, and my solemn Jerusalem flashing up by the flame of the fire, with Christ hanging over us like a vision, all made up a picture which will long glow upon—
that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude.
Keats made Ritchie promise he would carry his Endymion to the great desert of Sahara and fling it in the midst.
To complete our impression of Wordsworth at this time of his winter visit to London in his forty-eighth year, let us turn for a moment to Leigh Hunt’s recollections of his looks and ways about the same time.
Certainly I never beheld eyes that looked so inspired or supernatural. They were like fires half burning, half smouldering, with a sort of acrid fixture of regard, and seated at the end of two caverns. One might imagine Ezekiel or Isaiah to have had such eyes…. He had a dignified manner, with a deep roughish but not unpleasing voice, and an exalted mode of speaking. He had a habit of keeping his left hand in the bosom of his waistcoat; and in this attitude, except when he turned round to take one of the subjects of his criticism from the shelves, he was dealing forth his eloquent but hardly catholic judgments.
Hazlitt, in words written a few years later, gives a nearly similar portrait:—
He is above the middle size, with marked features, and an air somewhat stately and Quixotic. He reminds one of some of Holbein’s heads, grave, saturnine, with a slight indication of sly humour…. He has a peculiar sweetness in his smile, and great depth and manliness and a rugged harmony in the tones of his voice. His manner of reading his own poetry is particularly imposing, and in his favourite passages his eye beams with preternatural lustre, and the meaning labours slowly up from his swelling breast.
Although the great man could praise or care for no contemporary poetry save his own, and had none of the sympathetic or encouraging criticism to bestow on Keats which to that ardent young spirit would have meant so much, he nevertheless showed him no little personal kindness, receiving him when he called and inviting him several times to dine or sup. On his first visit Keats was kept waiting till the poet bustled in, full dressed in stiff stock and knee breeches, in haste to keep a dinner appointment with one of his official chiefs. This experience proved no check to their acquaintance: neither did Wordsworth’s chilling comment when Keats was induced to read to him the hymn to Pan from Endymion. ‘A very pretty piece of Paganism,’ he remarked and that was all. Severn was present at the gathering in Haydon’s studio where this reading took place. The evening’s talk, he relates, ran much on the virtues of a vegetable diet, which was for the moment, through the vehement advocacy of Shelley, so much in vogue in Leigh Hunt’s circle that even the ruddy and robust Haydon gave himself out for a proselyte like the rest, until friends one day caught him coming privily smacking his lips out of a chop-house. Wordsworth was in a jocular mood, and asked his herbivorous friends whether they did not welcome such a succulent morsel of animal food as a chance caterpillar in their cabbage. Was it on the same occasion that the sage and seer condescended to a pun, telling Haydon that if he ever took the name of another artist, as some of the old masters used to do, it should be Teniers, seeing that he had been ten years working on his great picture, still unfinished, of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, in which Wordsworth and other leading personages of the time were to figure among the crowd of lookers on?
A fortnight after their first meeting Keats re-affirms to his brother the view he had formerly expressed to Haydon that ‘If there were three things superior in the modern world they were The Excursion, Haydon’s Pictures, and Hazlitt’s depth of Taste.’ About the same time, that is in the course of January, he writes of having ‘seen Wordsworth frequently’: and again ‘I have seen a good deal of Wordsworth.’ A later allusion implies that he has seen him ‘with his beautiful wife and his enchanting sister.’ At one meeting Keats must have heard talk or reading that delighted him, for Severn tells how while he was toiling late one night over his miniature painting, Keats burst into his lodging fresh from Wordsworth’s company and in a state of eager elation over his experience. It is hard to refrain from conjecture as to what had happened. What one would like to think is that Wordsworth had been reading Keats some of those great passages in thePrelude without which the master cannot truly be more than half known and which remained unpublished until the year of his death. Or may we possibly trace a clue to the evening’s enjoyment in this further note of Hazlitt’s on a phase of Wordsworth’s conversation?—
It is fine to hear him talk of the way in which certain subjects should have been treated by eminent poets, according to his notions of the art. Thus he finds fault with Dryden’s description of Bacchus in the Alexander’s Feast, as if he were a mere good-looking youth, or boon companion
Flushed with a purple grace,
He shows his honest face—
Instead of representing the god returning from the conquest of India, crowned with vine-leaves, and drawn by panthers, and followed by troops of satyrs, of wild men and animals that he had tamed. You would think, in hearing him speak on this subject, that you saw Titian’s picture of the meeting of Bacchus and Ariadne—so classic were his conceptions, so glowing his style. (4)
It is tempting to seek some kind of connexion between Keats in his great Bacchic ode in Endymion and Wordsworth in this vein of talk. Had we not known that Endymion was finished before the elder and the younger poet met, we might have been inclined to attribute to Wordsworth’s eloquence some part of Keats’s inspiration. And even as it is such possibility remains open, for it must be remembered that Keats carefully re-copied the several cantos of his poem during the spring, the fourth canto not until March, at Teignmouth, and it is conceivable, though unlikely, that the triumph of Bacchus might have been an addition made in re-copying.
It was most likely a result of the interest taken by Wordsworth in Keats that the young poet received at this time a friendly call, of which he makes passing mention, from Crabb Robinson.
But the more Keats saw of Wordsworth himself, the more critically, as his letters show, he came gradually to look upon him. He disliked the idea of a man so revered dining with the foolish Kingston, and refused to dine and meet him there. He regrets, after Wordsworth has gone, that he has ‘left a bad impression wherever he has visited in town by his egotism, Vanity, and bigotry;’ adding, ‘yet he is a great poet if not a philosopher.’ The fullest expression of this critical attitude occurs in a letter written to Reynolds at the beginning of February. Keats is for the moment out of conceit with the poets of his own time; particularly with Wordsworth, whom he had always devoutly reverenced from a distance, and with Hunt, next to Cowden Clarke his earliest encourager and sympathiser, whom to his disappointment he had lately found more ready to carp than praise when he read him the early books of Endymion. It seems Hunt would have liked the talk of Endymion and Peona to come nearer his own key of simpering triviality in Rimini. ‘He says,’ writes Keats ‘the conversation is unnatural and too high-flown for Brother and Sister—says it should be simple, forgetting do ye mind that they are both overshadowed by a supernatural Power and perforce could not talk like Francesca in the Rimini. He must first prove that Caliban’s poetry is unnatural. This with me completely overturns his objections.’ In revisingEndymion for press Keats proved his wise adherence to his own point of view by cutting out some of the passages most infected with the taint of Hunt’s familiar tea-party manner. The words in which he expresses his impatience of the several dogmatisms of Wordsworth and Hunt are vital in relation to his own conception of poetry and of its right aim and working:—
It may be said that we ought to read our contemporaries, that Wordsworth etc., should have their due from us. But, for the sake of a few fine imaginative or domestic passages, are we to be bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egotist? Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself. Many a man can travel to the very bourne of Heaven, and yet want confidence to put down his half-seeing. Sancho will invent a Journey heavenward as well as anybody. We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us, and, if we do not agree, seems to put its hand into its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle or amaze it with itself, but with its subject. How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, ‘Admire me, I am a violet! Dote upon me, I am a primrose!’ Modern poets differ from the Elizabethans in this: each of the moderns like an Elector of Hanover governs his petty state, and knows how many straws are swept daily from the Causeways in all his dominions, and has a continual itching that all the Housewives should have their coppers well scoured. The ancients were Emperors of vast Provinces, they had only heard of the remote ones and scarcely cared to visit them. I will cut all this—I will have no more of Wordsworth or Hunt in particular…. I don’t mean to deny Wordsworth’s grandeur and Hunt’s merit, but I mean to say we need not be teazed with grandeur and merit when we can have them uncontaminated and unobtrusive.
These winter letters of Keats are full of similar first fruits of young reflection, thoughts forming or half-forming themselves in absolute sincerity as he writes, intuitions of his first-endeavouring mind on the search for vital truths of art and nature and humanity. Imperfect, half-wrought phrases often come from him which prove, when you have lived with them, to be more sufficient as well as more suggestive than if they had been chiselled into precision by longer study and a more confident mind. For instance: ‘the excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth’: a sentence worth whole treatises and fit, sketchy as it is, to serve as text to all that can justly be discoursed concerning problems of art in its relation to nature,—of realism, romance, and the rest. Or this:—
Brown and Dilke walked with me and back to the Christmas pantomime. I had not a dispute, but a disquisition, with Dilke upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.
In poetry I have a few axioms, and you will see how far I am from their centre.
1st. I think poetry should surprise by a fine excess, and not by singularity; it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.
2nd. Its touches of beauty should never be half-way, thereby making the reader breathless, instead of content. The rise, the progress, the setting of Imagery should, like the sun, come natural to him, shine over him, and set soberly, although in magnificence, leaving him in the luxury of twilight.
But it is easier to think what poetry should be, than to write it. And this leads me to another axiom—That if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all. However it may be with me, I cannot help looking into new countries with ‘O for a muse of Fire to ascend!’ IfEndymion serves me as a pioneer, perhaps I ought to be content—I have great reason to be content, for thank God I can read, and perhaps understand Shakespeare to his depths; and I have I am sure many friends, who, if I fail will attribute any change in my life and temper to humbleness rather than pride—to a cowering under the wings of great poets, rather than to a bitterness that I am not appreciated.
Cogitations of this cast, not less fresh than deep, and often throwing a clear retrospective light on the moods and aims which governed him in writingEndymion, are interspersed at the beginning of the year with regrets at dissensions rife among his friends. The strain between Haydon and Hunt had increased since the autumn, and now, over a sordid matter of money borrowed by Mrs Hunt—by all accounts the most unabashed of petty spongers—and not repaid, grew into an active quarrel. Another still fiercer quarrel broke out between Haydon and Reynolds, who with all his fine qualities seems to have been quick and touchy, and whom we find later in open breach with his admirable brother-in-law Thomas Hood. Keats was not involved. With his distinguished good sense and good heart in matters of friendship, he knew how to keep in close and affectionate touch with what was loveable or likeable in each of the disputants severally. His comments are the best key to the best part of himself, and show him as the true great spirit, by character not less than by gift, among the group.
Things have happened lately of great perplexity—you must have heard of them—Reynolds and Haydon retorting and recriminating, and parting for ever—the same thing has happened between Haydon and Hunt. It is unfortunate—Men should bear with each other: there lives not the Man who may not be cut up, aye lashed to pieces on his weakest side. The best of men have but a portion of good in them—a kind of spiritual yeast in their frames, which creates the ferment of existence—by which a Man is propelled to act, and strive, and buffet with Circumstance. The sure way, Bailey, is first to know a Man’s and then be passive—if after that he insensibly draws you towards him then you have no power to break the link. Before I felt interested in either Reynolds or Haydon, I was well read in their faults; yet, knowing them, I have been cementing gradually with both. I have an affection for them both, for reasons almost opposite—and to both must I of necessity cling, supported always by the hope that, when a little time, a few years, shall have tried me more fully in their esteem, I may be able to bring them together. The time must come, because they have both hearts and they will recollect the best parts of each other, when this gust is overblown.
Of Haydon himself and of his powers as a painter Keats continued to think as highly as ever, seeing in his pictures, as the friends and companions of every ardent and persuasive worker in the arts are apt to see, not so much the actual performance as the idea he had pre-conceived of it in the light of his friend’s enthusiastic ambition and eloquence. Severn repeatedly insists on Keats’s remarkably keen natural instinct for and understanding of the arts both of music and painting. Cowden Clarke’s piano-playing had been one of the chief pleasures of his school-days: as to the capacity he felt in himself for judging the works of painting, here is his own scrupulously modest and sincere estimate expressed to Haydon a little later:
Believe me Haydon your picture is part of myself—I have ever been too sensible of the labyrinthian path to eminence in Art (judging from Poetry) ever to think I understood the emphasis of painting. The innumerable compositions and decompositions which take place between the intellect and its thousand materials before it arrives at that trembling delicate and snail-horn perception of beauty. I know not your many havens of intenseness—nor ever can know them: but for this I hope nought you achieve is lost upon me: for when a Schoolboy the abstract idea I had of an heroic painting—was what I cannot describe. I saw it somewhat sideways, large, prominent, round, and colour’d with magnificence—somewhat like the feel I have of Anthony and Cleopatra. Or of Alcibiades leaning on his Crimson Couch in his Galley, his broad shoulders imperceptibly heaving with the Sea.
With Hunt also, in spite of the momentary causes of annoyance we have seen, Keats’s intercourse continued frequent, while with Reynolds his intimacy grew daily closer. At Hunt’s he again saw something of Shelley. ‘The Wednesday before last Shelley, Hunt, and I, wrote each a sonnet on the river Nile,’ he tells his brothers on the 16th of February, 1818. The sonnets are preserved. They were to be written, it was agreed, in a quarter of an hour. Shelley and Keats were up to time, but Hunt had to sit up half the night to finish his. It was worth the pains, and with it for once the small poet outdid the two great. ‘I have been writing,’ continues Keats, ‘at intervals, many songs and sonnets, and I long to be at Teignmouth to read them over to you.’ With the help of his manuscripts or of the transcripts made from them by his friends, it is possible to retrace the actual order of many of these fugitive pieces. On the 16th of January was written the sonnet on Mrs Reynolds’s cat, perhaps Keats’s best thing in the humorous vein; on the 21st, after seeing in Leigh Hunt’s possession a lock of hair reputed to be Milton’s, the address to that poet beginning ‘Chief of organic numbers!’ which he sends to the prime Milton enthusiast among his friends, Benjamin Bailey, with the comment, ‘This I did at Hunt’s, at his request,—perhaps I should have done something better alone and at home.’ The first two lines,—
Chief of organic numbers,
Old scholar of the spheres!
read like an anticipation in the rough of the first stanza of Tennyson’s masterly set of alcaics already referred to, beginning ‘O mighty-mouthed inventor of harmonies.’ To the 22nd belongs the sonnet, ‘O golden tongued Romance with serene lute,’ in which Keats bids himself lay aside (apparently) his Spenser,5 in order to read again the more rousing and human-passionate pages of Lear. This is one of the last of his sonnets written in the Petrarchan form as followed by Milton and Wordsworth, and from henceforth he follows the Shakespearean form almost exclusively. On the 31st he writes to Reynolds in a rollicking mood, and sends him the lines to Apollo beginning ‘Hence Burgundy, Claret, and Port,’ part rant (the word is his own) pure and simple, part rant touched with genius, and giving words to a very frequent and intense phase of feeling in himself:—
Aye, when the soul is fled
Too high above our head,
Affrighted do we gaze
After its airy maze,
As doth a mother wild,
When her young infant child
Is in an eagle’s claws—
And is not this the cause
Of madness?—God of Song,
Thou bearest me along
Through, sights I scarce can bear:
O let me, let me share
With the hot lyre and thee,
The staid Philosophy.
Temper my lonely hours,
And let me see thy bowers
By way of a sober conclusion to the same letter, he adds the very fine and profoundly felt sonnet in the Shakespearean form beginning ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be,’ which be calls his last. On the 3rd of February he sends two spirited sets of verses in the favourite four-beat measure, heptasyllable varied with octosyllable, of the later Elizabethans and the youthful Milton, namely those to Robin Hood (suggested by a set of sonnets by Reynolds on Sherwood Forest) and those on the Mermaid Tavern. On the 4th comes another Shakespearean sonnet, that beginning ‘Time’s sea has been five years at its slow ebb,’ in which he recalls the memory of an old, persistent, haunting love-fancy. The two sonnets of January 31 and February 4 should be read strictly together:—
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like full garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
Time’s sea hath been five years at its slow ebb;
Long hours have to and fro let creep the sand;
Since I was tangled in thy beauty’s web,
And snared by the ungloving of thine hand.
And yet I never look on midnight sky,
But I behold thine eyes’ well memoried light;
I cannot look upon the rose’s dye,
But to thy cheek my soul doth take its flight;
I cannot look on any budding flower,
But my fond ear, in fancy at thy lips,
And hearkening for a love-sound, doth devour
Its sweets in the wrong sense:—Thou dost eclipse
Every delight with sweet remembering,
And grief unto my darling joys dost bring.
The former is far the richer in contents, and in the light of the tragedy to come its two first quatrains now seem to thrill with prophetic meaning. But what is singular is that in the third quatrain should be recalled, in the same high strain of emotion, the vision of a beauty seen but not even accosted three-and-a-half years earlier (not really five) in the public gardens at Vauxhall, and then (August, 1814) addressed in what are almost the earliest of Keats’s dated verses, those in which he calls for a ‘brimming bowl,’—
From my despairing heart to charm
The Image of the fairest form
That e’er my reveling eyes beheld,
That e’er my wandering fancy spell’d…. (6)
Such, Woodhouse assures us, is the case, and the same memory fills the second sonnet: but this it might be possible to take rather as a fine Shakespearean exercise than as an expression of profound feeling. On the 5th, Keats sends another sonnet postponing compliance for the present with an invitation of Leigh Hunt’s to compose something in honour, or in emulation, of Spenser; and on the 8th, the sonnet in praise of the colour blue composed by way of protest against one of Reynolds preferring black, at least in the colouring of feminine eyes. About the same time he agreed with Reynolds that they should each write some metrical tales from Boccaccio, and publish them in a joint volume; and began at once for his own part with the first few stanzas of Isabella or the Pot of Basil. A little later in this so prolific month of February we find him rejoicing in the song of the thrush and blackbird, and melted into feelings of indolent pleasure and receptivity under the influence of spring winds and dissolving rain. He theorizes pleasantly in a letter to Reynolds on the virtues and benefits of this state of mind, translating the thrush’s music into some blank-verse lines of subtle and haunting cadence, in which, disowning for the nonce his habitual doctrine of the poet’s paramount need of knowledge, he makes the thrush say,
O fret not after knowledge—I have none,
And yet my song comes native with the warmth,
O fret not after knowledge—I have none,
And yet the evening listens.
In the course of the next fortnight we find him in correspondence with Taylor about the corrections to Endymion; and soon afterwards making a clearance of borrowed books, and otherwise preparing to flit. His brother George, who had been taking care of Tom at Teignmouth since December, was now obliged to come to town, bent on a scheme of marriage and emigration; and Tom’s health having made a momentary rally, Keats was unwilling that he should leave Teignmouth, and determined to join him there. He started in the second week of March, and stayed almost two months. It was an unlucky season for weather,—the soft-buffeting sheets and misty drifts of Devonshire rain renewing themselves wave on wave, in the inexhaustible way all lovers of that country know, throughout almost the whole spring, and preventing him from getting more than occasional tantalizing snatches of enjoyment in the beauty of the scenery, the walks, and flowers. His letters are full of whimsical objurgations not only against the climate, but against the male inhabitants, whose fibre he chooses to conceive relaxed by it:—
You may say what you will of Devonshire: the truth is, it is a splashy, rainy, misty, snowy, foggy, haily, floody, muddy, slipshod county. The hills are very beautiful, when you get a sight of ‘em—the primroses are out, but then you are in—the Cliffs are of a fine deep colour, but then the Clouds are continually vieing with them—the women like your London people in a sort of negative way—because the native men are the poorest creatures in England—because Government never have thought it worth while to send a recruiting party among them. When I think of Wordsworth’s Sonnet, ‘Vanguard of Liberty! ye men of Kent!’ the degenerated race about me are Pulvis ipecac. simplex—a strong dose. Were I a corsair, I’d make a descent on the south coast of Devon; if I did not run the chance of having Cowardice imputed to me. As for the men, they’d run away into the Methodist meeting-houses, and the women would be glad of it…. Such a quelling Power have these thoughts over me that I fancy the very air of a deteriorating quality. I fancy the flowers, all precocious, have an Acrasian spell about them—I feel able to beat off the Devonshire waves like soap-froth. I think it well for the honour of Britain that Julius Caesar did not first land in this County. A Devonshirer standing on his native hills is not a distinct object—he does not show against the light—a wolf or two would dispossess him.
A man of west-country descent should have known better. Why did not the ghost of William Browne of Tavistock arise and check Keats’s hand, and recite for his rebuke the burst in praise of Devon from Britannia’s Pastorals, with its happy echo of the Virgilian Salve magna parens and Haec genus acre virum?—
Hail thou my native soil: thou blessed plot
Whose equal all the world affordeth not!
Shew me who can so many christall rills,
Such sweet-clothed vallies, or aspiring hills,
Such wood-ground, pastures, quarries, wealthy mines,
Such rocks in whom the diamond fairly shines:
And if the earth can shew the like again;
Yet will she fail in her sea-ruling men.
Time never can produce men to o’er-take
The fames of Grenville, Davies, Gilbert, Drake,
Or worthy Hawkins or of thousands more
That by their power made the Devonian shore
Mock the proud Tagus.
Of the Devonshire girls Keats thought better than of their menkind, and writes and rimes on them with a certain skittishness of admiration. With one local family, a Mrs Jeffrey and her daughters, he and his brothers were on terms of warm friendship, as is shown by his correspondence with them a year later. One of the daughters married afterwards a Mr Prowse, and published two volumes of very tolerable sentimental verse: some of their contents, as interpreted (says Mr Buxton Forman) by Teignmouth tradition, would indicate that her heart had been very deeply touched by the young poet during his stay: but of responsive feelings on his own part his letters give no hint, and it was only a few weeks later that he wrote how his love for his brothers had hitherto stifled any impression that a woman might have made on him.
Besides his constant occupation in watching and cheering the invalid Tom, who had a relapse just after he came down, Keats was busy during these Devonshire days seeing through the press the last sheets of Endymion. He also composed, with the exception of the few verses he had begun at Hampstead, the whole of Isabella or The Pot of Basil, the first of his longer poems written with real maturity of art and certainty of touch. At the same time, no doubt with his great intended effort, Hyperion, in mind, he was studying and appreciating Milton as he had never done before. He had been steeped since boyhood in the charm of the minor poems, from the Vacation Exercise to Lycidas, and had read but not greatly cared for Paradise Lost, until first Severn, and then more energetically Bailey, had insisted that this was a reproach to him: and he now threw himself upon that poem, and penetrated with the grasp and swiftness of genius, as his marginal criticisms show, into the very essence of its power and beauty. His correspondence with his friends, particularly Bailey and Reynolds, is during this same time unusually sustained and full. Sometimes his vein is light and titterly (to use a word of his own) as I have indicated, and sometimes he masks an anxious heart beneath a lively manner, as thus:—
But ah Coward! to talk at this rate to a sick man, or, I hope, to one that was sick—for I hope by this you stand on your right foot. If you are not—that’s all,—I intend to cut all sick people if they do not make up their minds to cut Sickness—a fellow to whom I have a complete aversion, and who strange to say is harboured and countenanced in several houses where I visit—he is sitting now quite impudent between me and Tom—he insults me at poor Jem Rice’s—and you have seated him before now between us at the Theatre, when I thought he looked with a longing eye at poor Kean. I shall say, once for all, to my friends, generally and severally, cut that fellow, or I cut you.
On another day he recurs to the mood of half real half mock impatience against those who rub the bloom off things of beauty by over-commenting and over-interpreting them, a mood natural to a spirit dwelling so habitually and intuitively at the heart of beauty as his:—
It has as yet been a Mystery to me how and where Wordsworth went. I can’t help thinking he has returned to his Shell—with his beautiful Wife and his enchanting Sister. It is a great Pity that People should by associating themselves with the finest things, spoil them. Hunt has damned Hampstead and masks and sonnets and Italian tales. Wordsworth has damned the lakes. Milman has damned the old drama—West has damned wholesale. Peacock has damned satire—Ollier has damn’d Music—Hazlitt has damned the bigoted and the blue-stockinged; how durst the Man? he is your only good damner, and if ever I am damn’d—damn me if I shouldn’t like him to damn me.
Once, writing to Reynolds, he resumes his habit of a year and a half earlier, and casts his fancies and reflections into rime. Beginning playfully, he tells of an odd jumble of incongruous images that had crossed his brain, a kind of experience expressed by him elsewhere in various strains of verse, e.g. the finished poem Fancy and the careless lines beginning ‘Welcome Joy, and welcome Sorrow.’ He supposes that some people are not subject to such freaks of the mind’s eye, but have it consistently haunted by fine things such as he next proceeds to conjure up from memory,—
Some Titian colours touch’d into real life,—
The sacrifice goes on; the pontiff knife
Gleams in the Sun, the milk-white heifer lows,
The pipes go shrilly, the libation flows;
A white sail shows above the green-head cliff,
Moves round the point, and throws her anchor stiff;
The mariners join hymn with those on land.
There exists no such picture of a sacrifice by Titian, and what Keats was thinking of, I feel sure, was the noble ‘Sacrifice to Apollo’ by Claude from the Leigh Court collection, which he had seen at the British Institution in 1816 (hung, as it happened, next to Titian’s Europa from Cobham Hall), and which evidently worked deeply on his mind. To memory of it is probably due that magic vision of a little town emptied of its folk on a morning of sacrifice, which he evoked a year later in the ode on a Grecian Urn. It shows to the right an altar in front of a temple of Apollo, and about the altar a group including king and priest and a young man holding down a victim ox by the horns; people with baskets and offerings coming up from behind the temple; and to the left tall trees with a priest leading in another victim by the horns, and a woman with a jar bringing in libation; a little back, two herdsmen with their goats; a river spanned by a bridge and winding towards a sea-bay partly encircled by mountains which close the view, and on the edge of the bay the tower and roofs of a little town indistinctly seen. Recollection of this Claude leads Keats on quickly to that of another, the famous ‘Enchanted Castle,’ which he partly mixes up with it, and partly transforms by fantasy into something quite different from what it really is. He forgets the one human figure in the foreground, describes figures and features of the landscape which are not there, and remembering that the architecture combines ancient Roman with mediæval castellated and later Palladian elements, invents for it far-fetched origins and associations which in a more careless fashion almost remind one of those invented by Pope for his Temple of Fame. (A year later, all this effervescence of the imagination about the picture had subsided, and the distilled and concentrated essence of its romance was expressed—so at least I conceive—in the famous ‘magic casement’ phrase at the end of the Nightingale ode). (7)
- A SACRIFICE TO APOLLO FROM AN ENGRAVING BY VIVARES AND WOOLLETT AFTER CLAUDE
From this play of fancy about two half-remembered pictures Keats turns suddenly to reflections, which he would like to banish but cannot, on the ‘eternal fierce destruction’ which is part of nature’s law:—
But I saw too distinct into the core
Of an eternal fierce destruction,
And so from happiness I far was gone.
Still am I sick of it, and tho’, to-day,
I’ve gathered young spring-leaves, and flowers gay
Of periwinkle and wild strawberry,
Still do I that most fierce destruction see,
The Shark at savage prey,—the Hawk at pounce,—
The gentle Robin, like a Pard or Ounce,
Ravening a worm,—Away, ye horrid moods!
Moods of one’s mind!
An extensive knowledge is needful to thinking people—it takes away the heat and fever; and helps, by widening speculation, to ease the Burden of the Mystery, a thing which I begin to understand a little, and which weighed upon you in the most gloomy and true sentence in your letter. The difference of high Sensations with and without knowledge appears to me this: in the latter case we are falling continually ten thousand fathoms deep and being blown up again, without wings, and with all [the] horror of a bare-shouldered creature—in the former case, our shoulders are fledged, and we go through the same air and space without fear.The letters of this date should be read and re-read by all who want to get to the centre of Keats’s mind or to hold a key to the understanding of his deepest poetry. The richest of them all is that in which he sends the fragments of an ode to Maia written on May day with the (alas! unfulfilled) promise to finish it ‘in good time.’ The same letter contains the re-assertion of a purpose declared in a letter of a week before to Mr Taylor in the phrases, ‘I find I can have no enjoyment in the world but the continual drinking of knowledge. I find there is no worthy pursuit but the idea of doing some good to the world…. There is but one way for me. The road lies through application, study and thought. I will pursue it.’ The mood of the verses interpreting the song of the thrush a few weeks earlier has passed, the reader will note, clean out of the poet’s mind. To Reynolds his words are:—
Let it never be forgotten that ‘sensations’ contrasted with ‘thoughts’ mean for Keats not pleasures and experiences of the senses as opposed to those of the mind, but direct intuitions of the imagination as opposed to deliberate processes of the understanding; and that by ‘philosophy’ he does not mean metaphysics but knowledge and the fruits of reading generally.
The same letter, again, contains an interesting meditation on the relative qualities of genius in Milton and Wordsworth as affected by the relative stages of history at which they lived, and on the further question whether Wordsworth was a greater or less poet than Milton by virtue of being more taken up with human passions and problems. This speculation leads on to one of Keats’s finest passages of life-wisdom:—
And here I have nothing but surmises, from an uncertainty whether Milton’s apparently less anxiety for Humanity proceeds from his seeing further or not than Wordsworth: And whether Wordsworth has in truth epic passion, and martyrs himself to the human heart, the main region of his song. In regard to his genius alone—we find what he says true as far as we have experienced and we can judge no further but by larger experience—for axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses. We read fine things, but never feel them to the full until we have gone the same steps as the author.—I know this is not plain; you will know exactly my meaning when I say that now I shall relish Hamlet more than I have ever done—Or, better—you are sensible no man can set down Venery as a bestial or joyless thing until he is sick of it, and therefore all philosophising on it would be mere wording. Until we are sick, we understand not; in fine, as Byron says, ‘Knowledge is sorrow’; and I go on to say that ‘Sorrow is wisdom’—and further for aught we can know for certainty ‘Wisdom is folly.’
- THE ENCHANTED CASTLE FROM AN ENGRAVING BY VIVARES AND WOOLLETT AFTER CLAUDE
Presently follows the famous chain of images by which Keats, searching and probing for himself along pathways of the spirit parallel to those followed by Wordsworth in the Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey, renders account to himself of the stage of development to which his mind has now reached:—
Well—I compare human life to a large Mansion of many apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me. The first we step into we call the Infant, or Thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think. We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle within us—we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight. However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the heart and nature of Man—of convincing one’s nerves that the world is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness, and oppression—whereby this Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darkened, and at the same time, on all sides of it, many doors are set open—but all dark—all leading to dark passages. We see not the balance of good and evil; we are in a mist, we are now in that state, we feel the ‘Burden of the Mystery.’ To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive, when he wrote Tintern Abbey, and it seems to me that his genius is explorative of those dark Passages. Now if we live, and go on thinking, we too shall explore them.
Here is a typical case of the method of evocation as against the method of exposition. Wordsworth’s lines are written with a high, almost an inspired, power of describing and putting into direct words the successive moods of a spirit gradually ripening and deepening in the power of communion with nature, and through nature, with all life. But Keats, fully as he has pondered them, cannot be satisfied that they fit his own case until he has called up the history of his similar experiences in the form natural to him, the form, that is, of concrete similitudes or visions of the imagination—the Thoughtless Chamber, the Chamber of Maiden Thought with its gradual darkening and its many outlets standing open to be explored. It is significant that such visions should still be of architecture, of halls and chambers in an imagined mysterious building.
Apart from his growing sense of the darker sides of human existence and of the mysteries of good and evil, Keats was suffering at this time from the pain of a family break-up now imminent. George Keats had made up his mind to emigrate to America, and embark his capital, or as much of it as he could get possession of, in business there. Besides the wish to push his own fortunes, a main motive of this resolve on George’s part was the desire to be in a position as quickly as possible to help or if need be support, his poet-brother. He persuaded the girl to whom he had long been attached, Miss Georgiana Wylie, to share his fortunes, and it was settled that they were to be married and sail early in the summer. Some of Keats’s letters during the last weeks of his stay at Teignmouth are taken up with his plans for the time immediately following this change. He wavered for a while between two incompatible purposes. One was to go for a summer’s walking tour through Scotland with Charles Brown. ‘I have many reasons,’ he writes to Reynolds, ‘for going wonder-ways; to make my winter chair free from spleen; to enlarge my vision; to escape disquisitions on poetry, and Kingston-criticism; to promote digestion and economize shoe-leather.’ (How ‘economize,’ one wonders?) ‘I’ll have leather buttons and belt, and if Brown hold his mind, “over the hills we go.” If my books will keep me to it, then will I take all Europe in turn, and see the kingdoms of the earth and the glory of them.’ Here we find Keats in his turn caught by the romance of wild lands and of travel which had in various ways been so much of an inspiration to Byron and Shelley before him. A fortnight later we find him inclining to give up this purpose under an overmastering sense of the inadequacy of his own attainments, and of the necessity of acquiring knowledge, and ever more knowledge, to sustain the flight of poetry.
The habit of close self-observation and self-criticism is in most natures that possess it allied with vanity and egoism; but it was not so in Keats, who without a shadow of affectation judges himself, both in his strength and weakness, as the most clear-sighted and disinterested friend might judge. He is inclined, when not on the defensive against what he felt to be foolish criticism, to under-rate rather than to overrate his own work, and in his correspondence of the previous year we have found him perfectly aware that in writing Endymion he has rather been working off a youthful ferment of the mind than producing a sound or satisfying work of poetry. And when the time comes to write a preface to the poem, he in a first draft makes confession to the public of his ‘non-opinion of himself’ in terms both a little too intimate and too fidgeting and uneasy. Reynolds seeing the draft at once recognised that it would not do, and in criticizing it to Keats seems to have told him that it was too much in the manner of Leigh Hunt. In deference to his judgment Keats at once abandoned it, and a second attempt says briefly, with perfect dignity and taste, all that can justly be said in dispraise of his work. He warns the reader to expect ‘great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished,’ and adds most unboastfully:—‘it is just that this youngster should die away: a sad thought for me, if I had not some hope that while it is dwindling I may be plotting, and fitting myself for verses fit to live.’
Keats and Tom, the latter for the moment easier in health, were back at Hampstead in the last week of May, in time for the marriage of their brother George with Miss Georgiana Wylie. This was the young lady to whom Keats had rimed a valentine for his brother two years earlier (the lines beginning ‘Hadst thou liv’d in days of old’) and to whom he had also on his own account addressed the charming sonnet, ‘Nymph of the downward smile and sidelong glance.’ With no other woman or girl friend was he ever on such easy and cordial terms of intimacy. The wedding took place ‘a week ago,’ writes Keats on June 4, and about the same date, in order that he may not miss seeing as much of the young couple as possible before their departure, he declines a warm invitation from Bailey to visit him again at Oxford. Writing, as usual to this correspondent, with absolute openness, Keats shows that he is suffering from one of his moods of overmastering depression. First it takes the form of apathy. Bailey had written eagerly and judiciously in praise of Endymion in the Oxford Herald. Keats replies on June 1:—
My intellect must be in a degenerating state—it must be—for when I should be writing about—God knows what—I am troubling you with moods of my own mind, or rather body, for mind there is none. I am in that temper that if I were under water I would scarcely kick to come up to the top—I know very well ’tis all nonsense. In a short time I hope I shall be in a temper to feel sensibly your mention of my book. In vain have I waited till Monday to have any Interest in that, or anything else. I feel no spur at my Brother’s going to America, and am almost stony-hearted about his wedding. All this will blow over. All I am sorry for is having to write to you in such a time—but I cannot force my letters in a hotbed. I could not feel comfortable in making sentences for you.
Nine days later the mood has deepened to one of positive despondency, but it is the despondency of a great and generous spirit:—
Were it in my choice, I would reject a Petrarchal coronation—on account of my dying day, and because women have cancers. I should not by right speak in this tone to you for it is an incendiary spirit that would do so. Yet I am not old enough or magnanimous enough to annihilate self—and it would perhaps be paying you an ill compliment. I was in hopes some little time back to be able to relieve your dulness by my spirits—to point out things in the world worth your enjoyment—and now I am never alone without rejoicing that there is such a thing as death—without placing my ultimate in the glory of dying for a great human purpose. Perhaps if my affairs were in a different state, I should not have written the above—you shall judge: I have two brothers; one is driven, by The ‘burden of Society,’ to America; the other, with an exquisite love of life, is in a lingering state. My love for my Brothers, from the early loss of our parents, and even from earlier misfortunes, has grown into an affection ‘passing the love of women.’ I have been ill-tempered with them—I have vexed them—but the thought of them has always stifled the impression that any woman might otherwise have made upon me. I have a sister too, and may not follow them either to America or to the grave. Life must be undergone, and I certainly derive some consolation from the thought of writing one or two more poems before it ceases.
Meanwhile his fluctuations of purpose between a plunge into a life of solitude and study and an excursion in Brown’s company to Scotland had been decided in favour of the Scottish tour. George and his bride having to set out for Liverpool on June 22, it was arranged that Keats and Brown should accompany them so far on their way to the north. The coach started from the Swan and two Necks in Lad Lane, and on the first day stopped for dinner at Redbourne near St Albans, where Keats’s friend of medical student days, Mr Stephens, was in practice. He came to shake hands with the travelling party at the poet’s request, and many years afterwards wrote an account of the interview, the chief point of which is a description of Mrs George Keats. ‘Rather short, not what might be called strictly handsome, but looked like a being whom any man of moderate sensibility might easily love. She had the imaginative poetical cast. Somewhat singular and girlish in her attire…. There was something original about her, and John seemed to regard her as a being whom he delighted to honour, and introduced her with evident satisfaction.’
(1) Cary’s Dante: Inferno, iv, 126.(2) Diary of Henry Crabb Robinson, as quoted by W. Knight, Life of Wordsworth, ii. 228-9.(3) C.C. Clarke, Recollections of Writers, pp. 149-50.(4) Hazlitt, The Spirit of the Age: Collected Works, iv, 276.5Woodhouse suggests that the romance which he lays aside is his own Endymion, meaning his task of seeing it through the press: but this must surely be a mistake.(6) Woodhouse Transcripts (Poetry II) in Crewe MS. These verses are only to be found in the latest editions of Keats. They are not good, but interesting as containing in embryo ideas which afterwards grew into great poetry in the nightingale ode, the first book of Endymion, and the Ode to Melancholy.(7)The ‘Enchanted Castle,’ which Keats explicitly names, belonged at this date to Mr Wells of Redleaf, and was not exhibited until 1819, so that he probably knew it only through the engraving by Vivarès and Woollett.
Permanent link to this article: http://keats-poems.com/chapter-viii/