CHAPTER X (About John Keats by Sidney Colvin)
SEPTEMBER-DECEMBER 1818: BLACKWOOD AND THE QUARTERLY
Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine—Partisan excesses—Wild inconsistency—Virulences of first number—The ‘Z’ papers and Leigh Hunt—Blackwood and Walter Scott—The Chaldee Manuscript—Scott’s warning to Lockhart—Lockhart and Keats—‘Z’ on Endymion—A lesson to critics—Marks of Lockhart’s hand—The Quarterly on Endymion—Indignant friends: Bailey—Reynolds—Woodhouse and Taylor—Keats’s composure under attack—Subsequent effects—Tom Keats in extremis—Three months by the sick-bed—First Journal-letter to America—Dread of love and marriage—Death of Tom Keats.
On the first of September, within a fortnight of Keats’s return from the North, appeared the threatened attack on him in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Much as has been said and written on the history and effect of the ‘Cockney School’ articles, my task requires that the story should be retold, as accurately and fairly as may be, in the light of our present knowledge.
The Whig party in politics and letters had held full ascendency for half a generation in the periodical literature of Scotland by means of the Edinburgh Review, published by Archibald Constable and edited at this time by Jeffrey. The Tory rival, the Quarterly, was owned and published also by a Scotsman, but a Scotsman migrated to London, John Murray. Early in 1817 William Blackwood, an able Tory bookseller in Edinburgh, projected a new monthly review which should be a thorn in the side of his astute and ambitious trade rival, Constable, and at the same time should hold up the party flag against the blue and yellow Whig colours in the North, and show a livelier and lustier fighting temper than the Quarterly. The first number appeared in March under the title of The Edinburgh Monthly Magazine. The first editors were two insignificant men who proved neither competent nor loyal, and flat failure threatening the enterprise, Blackwood after six months got rid of the editors and determined to make a fresh start. He added his own name to the title of the magazine and called to his aid two brilliant young men who had been occasional contributors, John Wilson and John Gibson Lockhart, both sound Oxford scholars and Lockhart moreover a well-read modern linguist, both penmen of extraordinary facility and power of work, both at this period of their lives given, in a spirit partly of furious partisanship partly of reckless frolic, to a degree of licence in controversy and satire inconceivable to-day. Wilson, by birth the son of a rich Glasgow manufacturer but now reduced in fortune, was in person a magnificent, florid, blue-eyed athlete of thirty, and in literature the bully and Berserker of the pair. Lockhart, the scion of an ancient Lanarkshire house, a dark, proud, handsome and graceful youth of twenty-three, pensive and sardonically reserved, had a deadly gift of satire and caricature and a lust for exercising it which was for a time uncontrollable like a disease. Wilson had lived on Windermere in the intimacy of Wordsworth and his circle, and already made a certain mark in literature with his poem The Isle of Palms. Lockhart had made a few firm friends at Oxford and after his degree had frequented the Goethe circle at Weimar, but was otherwise without social or literary experience. Blackwood was the eager employer and unflinching backer of both. The trio were determined to push the magazine into notoriety by fair means or foul. Its management was informally divided between them, so that no one person could be held responsible. Of Wilson and Lockhart, each was at one time supposed to be editor, but neither ever admitted as much or received separate payment for editorial work. They were really chief contributors and trusted and insistent chief advisers, but Blackwood never let go his own control, and took upon himself, now with effrontery, now with evasion, occasionally with compromise made and satisfaction given, all the risks and rancours which the threefold management chose to incur.
Wilson’s obstreperousness, even when he had in some degree sobered down as a university professor, was at all times irresponsible and irrepressible, but for some of the excesses of those days he expressed regret and tried to make atonement; while Lockhart, the vitriol gradually working out of his nature in the sunshine of domestic happiness and of Scott’s genial and paternal influence, sincerely repented them when it was too late. But they lasted long enough to furnish one of the most deplorable chapters in our literary history. The fury of political party spirit, infesting the whole field of letters, accounts for, without excusing much. It was a rough unscrupulous time, the literary as well as the political atmosphere thick, as we have seen, with the mud and stones of controversy, flung often very much at random. The Quarterly, as conducted by the acrid and deformed pedant Gifford, had no mercy for opponents: and one of the harshest of its contributors was the virtuous Southey. On the other side the Edinburgh, under the more urbane and temperate Jeffrey, could sneer spitefully at all times and abuse savagely enough on occasion, especially when its contributor was Hazlitt. If a notorious Edinburgh attack on Coleridge’s Christabelvolume was really by Hazlitt, as Coleridge always believed and Hazlitt never denied, he in that instance added unpardonable personal ingratitude to a degree of critical blindness amazing in such a man. Even Leigh Hunt, in private life one of the most amiable of hearts, could in controversy on the liberal side be almost as good a damner (to use Keats’s phrase) as his ally, the same Hazlitt himself. But nowhere else were such felon strokes dealt in pure wantonness of heart as in the early numbers of Blackwood. The notorious first number opened with an article on Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria even more furiously insulting than the aforesaid Edinburgh article on _Christabel_ attributed to Hazlitt. But for Hazlitt Coleridge was in politics an apostate not to be pardoned, while for the Blackwood group he was no enemy but an ally. Why treat him thus unless it were merely for the purpose of attracting a scandalized attention? More amazing even than the virulence of Blackwood was its waywardness and inconsistency. Will it be believed that less than three years later the same Coleridge was being praised and solicited—and what is more, successfully solicited—for contributions? Again, nothing is so much to the credit of Wilson and Lockhart in those days as their admiration for Wordsworth. The sins of their first number are half redeemed by the article in Wordsworth’s praise, a really fine, eloquent piece of work in Wilson’s boisterous but not undiscriminating manner of laudation. But not even Wordsworth could long escape the random swash of Wilson’s bludgeon, and a very few years later his friends were astonished to read a ferocious outbreak against him in one of the Noctes by the same hand. In regard even to the detested Hazlitt the magazine blew in some degree hot and cold, printing through several numbers a series of respectful summaries, supplied from London by Patmore, of his Surrey Institution lectures; in another number a courteous enough estimate of his and Jeffrey’s comparative powers in criticism; and a little later taking him to task on one page rudely, but not quite unjustly, for his capricious treatment of Shakespeare’s minor poems and on another page addressing to him an insulting catechism full of the vilest personal imputations.
The only contemporary whose treatment by the Blackwood trio is truly consistent was Leigh Hunt, and of him it was consistently blackguardly. To return to the first number of the new series, three articles were counted on to create an uproar. First, the aforesaid emptying of the critical slop-pail on Coleridge. Second, the Translation from an ancient Chaldee Manuscript, being a biting personal satire, in language parodied from the Bible, on noted Edinburgh characters, including the Blackwood group themselves, disguised under transparent nicknames that stuck, Blackwood as Ebony, Wilson as the Leopard, Lockhart as the Scorpion that delighteth to sting the faces of men. Third, the article on the Cockney School of Poetry, numbered as the first of the series, headed with a quotation from Cornelius Webb, and signed with the initial ‘Z.’ As a thing to hang gibes on, the quotation from the unlucky Webb is aptly enough chosen:—
Our talk shall be (a theme we never tire on)
Of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron,
(Our England’s Dante)—Wordsworth, Hunt, and Keats,
The Muses’ son of promise, and what feats
He yet may do—
Nor are the gibes themselves quite unjustified so far as they touch merely the underbred insipidities of Leigh Hunt’s tea-party manner in Rimini. But they are as outrageously absurd as they are gross and libellous when they go on to assail both poem and author on the score of immorality.
The extreme moral depravity of the Cockney School is another thing which is for ever thrusting itself upon the public attention, and convincing every man of sense who looks into their productions, that they who sport such sentiments can never be great poets. How could any man of high original genius ever stoop publicly, at the present day, to dip his fingers in the least of those glittering and rancid obscenities which float on the surface of Mr Hunt’sHippocrene? His poetry is that of a man who has kept company with kept-mistresses. He talks indelicately like a tea-sipping milliner girl. Some excuse for him there might have been, had he been hurried away by imagination or passion. But with him indecency is a disease, as he speaks unclean things from perfect inanition. The very concubine of so impure a wretch as Leigh Hunt would be to be pitied, but alas! for the wife of such a husband! For him there is no charm in simple seduction; and he gloats over it only when accompanied with adultery and incest.
Such is the manner in which these censors set about showing their superior breeding and scholarship. ‘Z’ was in most cases probably a composite and not a single personality, but the respective shares of Wilson and Lockhart can often be confidently enough disentangled by those who know their styles.
The scandal created by the first number exceeded what its authors had hoped or expected. All Edinburgh was in a turmoil about the Chaldee Manuscript, the victims writhing, their enemies chuckling, law-suits threatening right and left. In London the commotion was scarcely less. The London agents for the sale of the Magazine protested strongly, and Blackwood had to use some hard lying in order to pacify them. Murray, who had a share in the magazine, soon began remonstrating against its scurrilities, and on their continuance withdrew his capital. Leigh Hunt in the Examiner retorted upon ‘Z’ with natural indignation and a peremptory demand for the disclosure of his name. The libellers hugged their anonymity, and at first showed some slight movement of panic. In a second edition of the first number the Chaldee Manuscript was omitted and the assault on Hunt made a little less gross and personal. For a while Hunt vigorously threatened legal proceedings, but after some time desisted, whether from lack of funds or doubt of a verdict or inability to identify his assailant we do not know, and declared, and stuck to the declaration, that he would take no farther notice. The attacks were soon renewed more savagely than ever. The second of the ‘Z’ papers alone is scholarly and relatively reasonable. Its phrase, ‘the genteel comedy of incest,’ fitly enough labels Rimini in contrast with the tragic treatment of kindred themes by real masters, as Sophocles, Dante, Ford, Alfieri, Schiller, even Byron in Manfred and Parisina. The third article, and two other attacks in the form of letters addressed directly to Hunt with the same signature, are merely rabid and outrageous. Correspondents having urged in protest that Hunt’s domestic life was blameless, the assailant says in effect, so much the greater his offence for writing a profligate and demoralizing poem; and to this preposterous charge against one of the mildest pieces of milk-and-water sentimentality in all literature he returns (or they return) with furious iteration.
The reasons for this special savagery against Hunt have never been made fully clear. He and his circle used to think it was partly due to his slighting treatment of Scott in the Feast of the Poets: nay, they even idly imagined for a moment that Scott himself had been the writer,—Scott, than whom no man was ever more magnanimously and humorously indifferent to harsh criticism or less capable of lifting a finger to resent it. But some of Scott’s friends and idolaters in Edinburgh were sensitive on his behalf as he never was on his own. Even for the Blackwood assault on Coleridge one rumoured reason was that Coleridge had rudely denounced a play, the Bertram of Maturin, admired and recommended to Drury Lane by Scott; and it is, as a matter of fact, conceivable that a similar excess of loyalty may have had something to do with the rancour of the ‘Z’ articles.
Looking back on the way in which the name of this great man got mixed up in some minds with matters so far beneath him, it seems worth while to set forth exactly what were his relations at this time to Blackwood and the Blackwood group. About 1816-1817 the two rival publishers Blackwood and Constable, were hot competitors for Scott’s favour, and Constable had lately scored a point in the game in the matter of the Tales of my Landlord. It became in the eyes of Blackwood and his associates a vital matter to secure some kind of countenance from Scott for their new venture. They knew they would never attach him as a partisan or secure a monopoly of his favours, and the authors of the Chaldee Manuscript divined his attitude wittily and shrewdly when they represented him as giving precisely the same answer to each of the two publishers who courted him, thus. (The man in plain apparel is Blackwood and the Jordan is the Tweed):—
44. Then spake the man clothed in plain apparel to the great magician who dwelleth in the old fastness, hard by the river Jordan, which is by the Border. And the magician opened his mouth, and said, Lo! my heart wisheth thy good, and let the thing prosper which is in thy hands to do it.
45. But thou seest that my hands are full of working and my labour is great. For lo I have to feed all the people of my land, and none knoweth whence his food cometh, but each man openeth his mouth, and my hand filleth it with pleasant things.
46. Moreover, thine adversary also is of my familiars.
47. The land is before thee, draw thou up thy hosts for the battle in the place of Princes, over against thine adversary, which hath his station near the mount of the Proclamation; quit ye as men, and let favour be shewn unto him which is most valiant.
48. Yet be thou silent, peradventure will I help thee some little.
More shrewdly still, Blackwood bethought himself of the one and only way of practically enlisting Scott, and that was by promising permanent work on the magazine for his friend, tenant, and dependent, William Laidlaw, whom he could never do enough to help. So it was arranged that Laidlaw should regularly contribute a chronicle on agricultural and antiquarian topics, and that Scott should touch it up and perhaps occasionally add a paragraph or short article of his own. In point of fact the peccant first number contains such an article, an entertaining enough little skit ‘On the alarming Increase of Depravity among Animals.’ After the number had appeared Scott wrote to Blackwood in tempered approval, but saying that he must withdraw his support if satire like that of theChaldee Manuscript was to continue. He had been pleased and tickled with the prophetic picture of his own neutrality, but strongly disapproved the sting and malice of much of the rest.
One cannot but wish he had put his foot down in like manner about the ‘Cockney school’ and other excesses: but home—that is Edinburgh—affairs and personages interested him much more than those of London. Lockhart he did not yet personally know. They first met eight months later, in June 1818: the acquaintance ripened rapidly into firm devotion on Lockhart’s part—for this young satirist could love as staunchly as he could stab unmercifully—a devotion requited with an answering warmth of affection on the part of Scott. At an early stage of their relations Scott, recognizing with regret that his young friend was ‘as mischievous as a monkey,’ got an offer for him of official work which would have freed him of his ties to Blackwood. In like manner two years later Scott threw himself heart and soul into the contest on behalf of Wilson for the Edinburgh chair of moral philosophy, not merely as the Tory candidate, but in the hope—never fully realized—that the office would tame his combative extravagances as well as give scope for his serious talents. And when the battle was won and Lockhart, now Scott’s son-in-law, crowed over it in a set of verses which Scott thought too vindictive, he remonstrated in a strain of admirable grave and affectionate wisdom:—
I have hitherto avoided saying anything on this subject, though some little turn towards personal satire is, I think, the only drawback to your great and powerful talents, and I think I may have hinted as much to you. But I wished to see how this matter of Wilson’s would turn, before making a clean breast upon this subject…. Now that he has triumphed I think it would be bad taste to cry out—‘Strike up our drums—pursue the scattered stray.’ Besides, the natural consequence of his situation must be his relinquishing his share in these compositions—at least, he will injure himself in the opinion of many friends, and expose himself to a continuation of galling and vexatious disputes to the embittering of his life, should he do otherwise. In that case I really hope you will pause before you undertake to be the Boaz of the Maga; I mean in the personal and satirical department, when the Jachin has seceded.
Besides all other objections of personal enemies, personal quarrels, constant obloquy, and all uncharitableness, such an occupation will fritter away your talents, hurt your reputation both as a lawyer and a literary man, and waste away your time in what at best will be but a monthly wonder. What has been done in this department will be very well as a frolic of young men, but let it suffice…. Remember it is to the personal satire I object, and to the horse-play of your raillery…. Revere yourself, my dear boy, and think you were born to do your country better service than in this species of warfare. I make no apology (I am sure you will require none) for speaking plainly what my anxious affection dictates…. I wish you to have the benefit of my experience without purchasing it; and be assured, that the consciousness of attaining complete superiority over your calumniators and enemies by the force of your general character, is worth a dozen of triumphs over them by the force of wit and raillery.
It took a longer time and harder lessons to cure Lockhart of the scorpion habit and wean him from the seductions of the ‘Mother of Mischief,’ as Scott in another place calls Blackwood’s Magazine. Meantime he had in the case of Keats done as much harm as he could. He had not the excuse of entire ignorance. His intimate friend Christie (afterwards principal in the John Scott duel) was working at the bar in London and wrote to Lockhart in January 1818 that he had met Keats and been favourably impressed by him. In reply Lockhart writes: ‘What you say of Keates (sic) is pleasing, and if you like to write a little review of him, in admonition to leave his ways, etc., and in praise of his natural genius, I shall be greatly obliged to you.’ Later Benjamin Bailey had the opportunity of speaking with Lockhart in Keats’s behalf. Bailey had by this time taken orders, and after publishing a friendly notice of Endymion in the Oxford Herald for June, had left the University and gone to settle in a curacy in Cumberland. In the course of the summer he staid at Stirling, at the house of Bishop Gleig; whose son, afterwards the well-known writer and chaplain-general to the forces, was his friend, and whose daughter he soon afterwards married. Here Bailey met Lockhart, and anxious to save Keats from the sort of treatment to which Hunt had already been exposed, took the opportunity of telling him in a friendly way Keats’s circumstances and history, explaining at the same time that his attachment to Leigh Hunt was personal and not political; pleading that he should not be made an object of party denunciation; and ending with the request that at any rate what had been thus said in confidence should not be used to his disadvantage. To which Lockhart replied that certainly it should not be so used by him. Within three weeks the article appeared, making use to all appearance, and to Bailey’s great indignation, of the very facts he had thus confidentially communicated.(1)
‘That amiable but infatuated bardling, Mister John Keats,’ had received a certain amount of attention from ‘Z’ already, both in the quotation from Cornelius Webb prefixed to the Cockney school articles, and in allusion to Hunt’s pair of sonnets on the intercoronation scene which he had printed in his volume,Foliage, since the ‘Z’ series began. When now Keats’s own turn came, in the fourth article of the series, his treatment was almost mild in comparison with that of his supposed leader. ‘This young man appears to have received from nature talents of an excellent, perhaps even of a superior, order—talents which, devoted to the purposes of any useful profession, must have rendered him a respectable, if not an eminent citizen.’ But, says the critic, he has unfortunately fallen a victim to the metromania of the hour; the wavering apprentice has been confirmed in his desire to quit the gallipots by his admiration for ‘the most worthless and affected of all the versifiers of our time.’ ‘Mr Hunt is a small poet, but he is a clever man, Mr Keats is a still smaller poet, and he is only a boy of pretty abilities which he has done everything in his power to spoil.’ And so on; and so on; not of course omitting to put a finger on real weaknesses, as lack of scholarship, the use of Cockney rimes like higher, Thalia; ear, Cytherea; thorn, fawn; deriding the Boileau passage in Sleep and Poetry, and perceiving nothing but laxity and nervelessness in the treatment of the metre. In the conceit of academic talent and training, the critic shows himself open-eyed to all the faults and stone-blind to all the beauty and genius and promise, and ends with a vulgarity of supercilious patronage beside which all the silly venial faults of taste in Leigh Hunt seem like good breeding itself.
And now, good-morrow to ‘the Muses’ son of Promise;’ as for ‘the feats he yet may do,’ as we do not pretend to say like himself, ‘Muse of my native land am I inspired,’ we shall adhere to the safe old rule of pauca verba. We venture to make one small prophecy, that his bookseller will not a second time venture £50 upon any thing he can write. It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr John, back to ‘plasters, pills, and ointment boxes,’ etc. But, for Heaven’s sake, young Sangrado, be a little more sparing of extenuatives and soporifics in your practice than you have been in your poetry.
There is a lesson in these things. I remember the late Mr Andrew Lang, one of the most variously gifted and richly equipped critical minds of our time, and under a surface vein of flippancy essentially kind-hearted,—I remember Mr Andrew Lang, in a candid mood of conversation, wondering whether in like circumstances he might not have himself committed a like offence, and with no Hyperion or St Agnes’ Eve or Odes yet written and only the 1817 volume andEndymion before him, have dismissed Keats fastidiously and scoffingly. Who knows?—and let us all take warning. But now-a-days the errors of criticism are perhaps rather of an opposite kind, and any rashness and rawness of undisciplined novelty is apt to find itself indulged and fostered rather than repressed. What should at any time have saved Endymion from harsh judgment, if the quality of the poetry could not save it, was the quality of the preface. How could either carelessness or rancour not recognize, not augur the best from, its fine spirit of manliness and modesty and self-knowledge?
The responsibility for the gallipots article, as for so many others in the Blackwood of the time, may have been in some sort collective. But that Lockhart had the chief share in it is certain. According to Dilke, he in later life owned as much. To those who know his hand, he stands confessed not only in the general gist and style but in particular phrases. One is the use of Sangrado for doctor, a use which both Scott and Lockhart had caught from Gil Blas. (2) Others are the allusions to the Métromanie of Piron and the Endymion of Wieland, particularly the latter. Wieland’s Oberon, as we have seen, had made its mark in England through Sotheby’s translation, but no other member of the Blackwood group is the least likely to have had any acquaintance with his untranslated minor works except Lockhart, whose stay at Weimar had given him a familiar knowledge of contemporary German literature. In the Mad Banker of Amsterdam, a comic poem in the vein of Frere’s Whistlecraft and Byron’s Beppo, contributed by him at this time to Blackwood under one of his Protean pseudonyms, as ‘William Wastle Esq.,’ Lockhart sketches his own likeness as follows:—
Then touched I off friend Lockhart (Gibson John),
So fond of jabbering about Tieck and Schlegel,
Klopstock and Wieland, Kant and Mendelssohn,
All High Dutch quacks, like Spurzheim or Feinagle—
Him the Chaldee yclept the Scorpion.—
The claws, but not the pinions, of the eagle,
Are Jack’s, but though I do not mean to flatter,
Undoubtedly he has strong powers of satire.
Bailey to the end of his life never forgave Lockhart for what he held to be a base breach of faith after their conversation above mentioned, and his indignation communicated itself to the Keats circle and afterwards, as we shall see, to Keats himself. Mr Andrew Lang, in his excellent Life of Lockhart, making such defence as is candidly possible for his hero’s share in the Blackwood scandals, urges justly enough that the only matter of fact divulged about Keats by ‘Z’ is that of his having been apprenticed to a surgeon (‘Z’ prefers to say an apothecary) and that thus much Lockhart could not well help knowing independently, either from his own friend Christie or from Bailey’s friend and future brother-in-law Gleig, then living at Edinburgh and about to become one of Blackwood’s chief supporters. When in farther defence of ‘Z’s’ attacks on Hunt Mr Lang quotes from Keats’s letters phrases in dispraise of Hunt almost as strong as those used by ‘Z’ himself, he forgets the world of difference there is between the confidential criticism, in a passing mood or whim of impatience, of a friend by a friend to a friend and the gross and re-iterated public defamation of a political and literary opponent.
Lockhart in after life pleaded the rawness of youth, and also that in the random and incoherent violences of the early years of Blackwood there had been less of real and settled malice than in the Quarterly Review as at that time conducted. The plea may be partly admitted, but to forgive him we need all the gratitude which is his due for his filial devotion to and immortal biography of Scott, as well as all the allowance to be made for a dangerous gift and bias of nature.
The Quarterly article on Endymion followed in the last week of September (in the number dated April,—such in those days was editorial punctuality). It is now known to have been the work of John Wilson Croker, a man of many sterling gifts and honourable loyalties, unjustly blackened in the eyes of posterity by Macaulay’s rancorous dislike and Disraeli’s masterly caricature, but in literature as in politics the narrowest and stiffest of conservative partisans. Like his editor Gifford, he was trained in strict allegiance to eighteenth century tradition and the school of Pope. His brief review of Endymion is that of a man insensible to the higher charm of poetry, incapable of judging it except by mechanical rule and precedent, and careless of the pain he gives. He professes to have been unable to read beyond the first canto, or to make head or tail of that, and what is worse, turns the frank avowals of Keats’s preface foolishly and unfairly against him. At the same time, like Lockhart, he does not fail to point out and exaggerate real weaknesses of Keats’s early manner, and the following, from the point of view of a critic who sees no salvation outside the closed couplet, is not unreasonable criticism:—
He seems to us to write a line at random, and then he follows not the thought excited by this line, but that suggested by the rhyme with which it concludes. There is hardly a complete couplet inclosing a complete idea in the whole book. He wanders from one subject to another, from the association, not of ideas but of sounds, and the work is composed of hemistichs which, it is quite evident, have forced themselves upon the author by the mere force of the catchwords on which they turn.
In another of the established reviews, The British Critic, a third censor came out with a notice even more contemptuous than those of Blackwood and the Quarterly. For a moment Keats’s pride winced, as any man’s might, under the personal insults of the critics, and dining in the company of Hazlitt and Woodhouse with Mr Hessey, the publisher, he seems to have declared in Woodhouse’s hearing that he would write no more. But he quickly recovered his balance, and in a letter to Dilke of a few days later, speaking of Hazlitt’s wrath against the Blackwood scribes, is silent as to their treatment of himself. Meantime some of his friends and more than one stranger were actively sympathetic and indignant on his behalf. A just and vigorous expostulation appeared in the Morning Chronicle under the initials J.S.,—those in all likelihood of John Scott, then editor of the London Magazine, not long afterwards killed by Lockhart’s friend Christie in a needless and blundering duel arising out of these very Blackwood brawls. Bailey, being in Edinburgh, had an interview with Blackwood and pleaded to be allowed to contribute a reply to his magazine; and this being refused, sought out Constable, who besides the Edinburgh Reviewconducted the monthly periodical which had been kind to Keats’s first volume, (3) and proposed to publish in it an attack on Blackwood and the ‘Z’ articles: but Constable would not take the risk. Reynolds published in a west-country paper, the Alfred, a warm rejoinder to the Quarterly reviewer, containing a judicious criticism in brief of Keats’s work, with remarks very much to the point on the contrast between his and the egotistical (meaning Wordsworth’s) attitude to nature. This Leigh Hunt reprinted with some introductory words in the Examiner, and later in life regretted that he had not done more. But he could not have done more to any purpose. He was not himself an enthusiastic admirer of Endymion, had plainly said so to Keats and to his friends, and would have got out of his depth if he had tried to appreciate the intensity and complexity of symbolic and spiritual meaning which made that poem so different from his own shallow, self-pleasing metrical versions of classic or Italian tales. Reynolds’s piece, which he re-printed, was quite effective and to the point as far as it went; and moreover any formal defence of Keats by Hunt would only have increased the virulence of his enemies, as they both perfectly well knew. Privately at the same time Reynolds, who had just been reading The Pot of Basil in manuscript, wrote to his friend with affectionate wisdom as follows:—
As to the poem, I am of all things anxious that you should publish it, for its completeness will be a full answer to all the ignorant malevolence of cold, lying Scotchmen and stupid Englishmen. The overweening struggle to oppress you only shows the world that so much of endeavour cannot be directed to nothing. Men do not set their muscles and strain their sinews to break a straw. I am confident, Keats, that the ‘Pot of Basil’ hath that simplicity and quiet pathos which are of a sure sovereignty over all hearts. I must say that it would delight me to have you prove yourself to the world what we know you to be—to have you annul The Quarterly Review by the best of all answers. One or two of your sonnets you might print, I am sure. And I know that I may suggest to you which, because you can decide as you like afterward. You will remember that we were to print together. I give over all intention, and you ought to be alone. I can never write anything now—my mind is taken the other way. But I shall set my heart on having you high, as you ought to be. Doyou get Fame, and I shall have it in being your affectionate and steady friend.
Woodhouse, in a correspondence with the unceasingly kind and loyal publishers Taylor and Hessey, shows himself as deeply moved as anyone, and Taylor in the course of the autumn sought to enlist on behalf of the victim the private sympathies of one of the most cultivated and influential Liberal thinkers and publicists of the time, Sir James Mackintosh. Sending him a copy of Endymion, Taylor writes:—‘Its faults are numberless, but there are redeeming features in my opinion, and the faults are those of real Genius. Whatever this work is, its Author is a true poet.’ After a few words as to Keats’s family and circumstances he adds, ‘These are odd particulars to give, when I am introducing the work and not the man to you,—but if you knew him, you would also feel that strange personal interest in all that concerns him.—Mr Gifford forgot his own early life when he tried to bear down this young man. Happily, it will not succeed. If he lives, Keats will be the brightest ornament of this Age.’ In concluding Taylor recommends particularly to his correspondent’s attention the hymn to Pan, the Glaucus episode, and above all the triumph of Bacchus.
Proud in the extreme, Keats had no irritable vanity; and aiming in his art, if not always steadily, yet always at the highest, he rather despised than courted such successes as he saw some of his contemporaries—Thomas Moore, for instance, with Lalla Rookh—enjoy. ‘I hate,’ he says, ‘a mawkish popularity.’ Wise recognition and encouragement would no doubt have helped and cheered him, but even in the hopes of permanent fame which he avowedly cherished, there was nothing intemperate or impatient; and he was conscious of perceiving his own shortcomings at least as clearly as his critics. Accordingly he took his treatment at their hands more coolly than older and more experienced men had taken the like. Hunt, as we have seen, had replied indignantly to his Blackwood traducers, repelling scorn with scorn, and he and Hazlitt were both at first red-hot to have the law of them. Keats after the first sting with great dignity and simplicity treated the annoyance as one merely temporary, indifferent, and external. When early in October Mr Hessey sent for his encouragement the extracts from the papers in which he had been defended, he wrote:—
I cannot but feel indebted to those gentlemen who have taken my part. As for the rest, I begin to get a little acquainted with my own strength and weakness. Praise or blame has but a momentary effect on the man whose love of beauty in the abstract makes him a severe critic on his own works. My own domestic criticism has given me pain without comparison beyond what ‘Blackwood’ or the ‘Quarterly’ could possibly inflict—and also when I feel I am right, no external praise can give me such a glow as my own solitary re-perception and ratification of what is fine. J. S. is perfectly right in regard to the slip-shod Endymion. That it is so is no fault of mine. No!—though it may sound a little paradoxical. It is as good as I had power to make it—by myself. Had I been nervous about its being a perfect piece, and with that view asked advice, and trembled over every page, it would not have been written; for it is not in my nature to fumble—I will write independently.—I have written independently without Judgment. I may write independently, andwith Judgment, hereafter. The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man: It cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself. That which is creative must create itself. In Endymion I leaped headlong into the sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the Soundings, the quicksands, and the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea and comfortable advice. I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest. But I am nigh getting into a rant.
Two or three weeks later, in answer to a similar encouraging letter from Woodhouse, he explains, in sentences luminous with self-knowledge, what he calls his own chameleon character as a poet, and the variable and impressionable temperament such a character implies. ‘Where then,’ he adds, ‘is the wonder that I should say I would write no more? Might I not at that very instant have been cogitating on the characters of Saturn and Ops?… I know not whether I make myself wholly understood: I hope enough to make you see that no dependence is to be placed on what I said that day.’ And again about the same time to his brother and sister-in-law:—
There have been two letters in my defence in the ‘Chronicle,’ and one in the ‘Examiner,’ copied from the Exeter paper, and written by Reynolds. I don’t know who wrote those in the ‘Chronicle.’ This is a mere matter of the moment: I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death. Even as a matter of present interest, the attempt to crush me in the ‘Quarterly’ has only brought me more into notice, and it is a common expression among bookmen, ‘I wonder the “Quarterly” should cut its own throat.’
It does me not the least harm in Society to make me appear little and ridiculous: I know when a man is superior to me and give him all due respect—he will be the last to laugh at me and as for the rest I feel that I make an impression upon them which ensures me personal respect while I am in sight whatever they may say when my back is turned.
Since these firm expressions of indifference to critical attack have been before the world, it has been too confidently assumed that Shelley and Byron were totally misled and wide of the mark when they believed that Blackwood and the Quarterly had killed Keats or even much hurt him. But the truth is that not they, but their consequences, did in their degree help to kill him. It must not be supposed that such words of wisdom and composure, manifestly sincere as they are, represent the whole of Keats, or anything like the whole. They represent, indeed, the admirably sound and manly elements which were a part of him: they show us the veins of what Matthew Arnold calls flint and iron in his nature uppermost. But he was no Wordsworth, to remain all flint and iron in indifference to derision and in the scorn of scorn. He had not only in a tenfold degree the ordinary acuteness of a poet’s feelings: he had the variable and chameleon temperament of which he warns Woodhouse while in the very act of re-assuring him: he had along with the flint and iron a strong congenital tendency, against which he was always fighting but not always successfully, to fits of depression and self-torment. Moreover the reviews of those days, especially the Edinburghand Quarterly, had a real power of barring the acceptance and checking the sale of an author’s work. What actually happened was that when a year or so later Keats began to realise the harm which the reviews had done and were doing to his material prospects, these consequences in his darker hours preyed on him severely and conspired with the forces of disease and passion to his undoing.
For the present and during the first stress of the Blackwood and Quarterly storms, he was really living under the pressure of another and far more heartfelt trouble. His friends the Dilkes, before they heard of his intended return from Scotland, had felt reluctantly bound to write and summon him home on account of the alarming condition of his brother Tom, whom he had left behind in their lodgings at Well Walk. In fact the case was desperate, and for the next three months Keats’s chief occupation was the harrowing one of watching and ministering to this dying brother. In a letter written to Dilke in the third week of September, he speaks thus of his feelings and occupations:—
I wish I could say Tom was better. His identity presses upon me so all day that I am obliged to go out—and although I had intended to have given some time to study alone, I am obliged to write and plunge into abstract images to ease myself of his countenance, his voice, and feebleness—so that I live now in a continual fever. It must be poisonous to life, although I feel well. Imagine ‘the hateful siege of contraries’—if I think of fame, of poetry, it seems a crime to me, and yet I must do so or suffer.’
And again about the same time to Reynolds:—
I never was in love, yet the voice and shape of a Woman has haunted me these two days—at such a time when the relief, the feverish relief of poetry, seems a much less crime. This morning poetry has conquered—I have relapsed into those abstractions which are my only life—I feel escaped from a new, strange, and threatening sorrow, and I am thankful for it. There is an awful warmth about my heart, like a load of immortality.
What he calls the abstractions into which he had plunged for relief were the conceptions of the fallen Titans, ‘the characters of Saturn and Ops’ at the beginning of Hyperion. Those conceptions were just beginning to clothe themselves in his mind in the verses which every English reader knows, verses of a cadence as majestic and pathetic almost as any in the language, yet scarcely more charged with high emotion or more pregnant with the sense and pressure of destiny than some of the prose of his familiar letters written about the same time. His only other attempt in poetry during those weeks was a translation from a sonnet of Ronsard, whose works Taylor had lent him and from whom he got some hints for the names and characters of his Titans. As the autumn wore on the task of the watcher grew ever more sorrowful and absorbing, he was obliged to desist from poetry for the time. But his correspondence shows no flagging. Towards the middle of October he began, marking it as A, the first of the series of journal-letters to his brother and sister in America, which give us during the next fifteen months a picture of his outward and inward being fuller and richer than we possess from any other poet, and except in one single particular absolutely unreserved. Despatching the packet on his birthday, that is October 29 or 31, he explains why it is not longer (it is over 7,000 words): ‘Tom is rather more easy than he has been: but is still so nervous that I cannot speak to him of these Matters—indeed it is the care I have had to keep his mind aloof from feelings too acute that has made this letter so short a one—I did not like to write before him a letter he knew was to reach your hands—I cannot even now ask him for any Message—his heart speaks to you. Be as happy as you can.’ Keats had begun by warning George and his wife, in language of beautiful tender moderation and sincerity, to prepare their minds for the worst, and assuring them of the comfort he took in the thoughts of them:—‘I have Fanny and I have you—three people whose Happiness to me is sacred—and it does annul that selfish sorrow which I should otherwise fall into, living as I do with poor Tom who looks upon me as his only comfort—the tears will come into your Eyes—let them—and embrace each other—thank heaven for what happiness you have, and after thinking a moment or two that you suffer in common with all Mankind hold it not a sin to regain your cheerfulness.’ Between the opening and the closing note of tenderness, the letter runs through a wide range of subject and feeling; gossip about the Dilkes and other acquaintances; an account of the humours of his sea-passage from Inverness to London; the unruffled allusion to the Tory reviews from which we have already quoted; two long and curious sex-haunted passages, one expressing his admiration of the same East Indian cousin of the Reynoldses, ‘not a Cleopatra, but at least a Charmian,’ whom we have found mentioned already in a letter to Reynolds, the other telling what promised to be an equivocal adventure, but turned out quite conventionally and politely, with a mysterious lady acquaintance met once before at Hastings; a rambling discussion on the state of home and foreign politics; a rhapsody, or as he would have called it rant, in a mounting strain of verse which rings like a boy’s voice singing in alt, prophesying that the child to be born to George and his wife shall be the first American poet; then more babble about friends and acquaintances; then, as if he knew that the invincible thing, the love-god whose spell he had always at once dreaded and longed for, were hovering and about to swoop, he tries to re-assure himself by calling up the reasons why marriage and the life domestic are not for him. The Charmian passage and the passage in which he seeks to stave off the approach of love are among the best known in his letters, but nevertheless the most necessary to quote:—
She has a rich eastern look; she has fine eyes and fine manners. When she comes into a room she makes an impression the same as the Beauty of a Leopardess. She is too fine and too conscious of herself to repulse any Man who may address her—from habit she thinks that nothing particular. I always find myself more at ease with such a woman; the picture before me always gives me a life and animation which I cannot possibly feel with anything inferior. I am at such times too much occupied in admiring to be awkward or on a tremble. I forget myself entirely because I live in her. You will by this time think I am in love with her; so before I go further I will tell you I am not—she kept me awake one Night as a tune of Mozart’s might do. I speak of the thing as a pastime and an amusement than which I can feel none deeper than a conversation with an imperial woman the very ‘yes’ and ‘no’ of whose Lips is to me a Banquet. I don’t cry to take the Moon home with me in my Pocket nor do I fret to leave her behind me. I like her and her like because one has no sensations—what we both are is taken for granted. You will suppose I have by this had much talk with her—no such thing—there are the Miss Reynoldses on the look out. They think I don’t admire her because I did not stare at her. They call her a flirt to me. What a want of knowledge! She walks across a room in such a Manner that a Man is drawn towards her with a magnetic Power. This they call flirting! They do not know things.
In the next passage, almost as the young priest Ion in the Greek play clings to his ministration in the temple of Apollo, so we find Keats cleaving exultingly to his high vocation and to the idea of a life dedicated to poetry alone. But a great spiritual flaw in his nature—or was it only a lack of fortunate experience?—betrays itself in his conception of the alternative from which he shrinks. The imagery under which he figures marriage joys gives no hint of their power to discipline and inspire and sustain, and is trivially sensuous and material.
Notwithstanding your Happiness and your recommendation I hope I shall never marry. Though the most beautiful Creature were waiting for me at the end of a Journey or a Walk; though the Carpet were of Silk, the Curtains of the morning Clouds; the chairs and Sofa stuffed with Cygnet’s down; the food Manna, the Wine beyond Claret, the Window opening on Windermere, I should not feel—or rather my Happiness would not be so fine, as my Solitude is sublime. Then instead of what I have described there is a sublimity to welcome me home. The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the windowpane are my Children. The mighty abstract Idea I have of Beauty in all things stifles the more divided and minute domestic happiness—an amiable wife and sweet Children I contemplate as a part of that Beauty, but I must have a thousand of those beautiful particles to fill up my heart. I feel more and more every day, as my imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds. No sooner am I alone than shapes of epic greatness are stationed around me, and serve my Spirit the office which is equivalent to a King’s body-guard—then ‘Tragedy with sceptered pall comes sweeping by.’ According to my state of mind I am with Achilles shouting in the Trenches, or with Theocritus in the Vales of Sicily. Or I throw my whole being into Troilus, and repeating those lines, ‘I wander like a lost Soul upon the Stygian Banks staying for waftage,’ I melt into the air with a voluptuousness so delicate that I am content to be alone. These things, combined with the opinion I have of the generality of women—who appear to me as children to whom I would rather give a sugar Plum than my time, form a barrier against Matrimony which I rejoice in.
Throughout November Keats was so fully absorbed in attendance on his dying brother as to be unfit for poetry or correspondence. On the night of December 1 the end came. ‘Early the next morning,’ writes Brown, ‘I was awakened in bed by a pressure on my hand. It was Keats, who came to tell me that his brother was no more. I said nothing, and we both remained silent for a while, my hand fast locked in his. At length, my thoughts returning from the dead to the living, I said,—“Have nothing more to do with those lodgings,—and alone too! Had you not better live with me?” He paused, pressed my hand warmly, and replied, “I think it would be better.” From that moment he was my inmate.’
(1) Houghton MSS.
(2) The source is the Spanish sangrador, blood-letter; which Le Sage in Gil Blas converts into a proper name, Sangrado.
(3) The old Scots Magazine lately re-started under a new name; see above, p. 132.
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