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CHAPTER XVII (About John Keats by Sidney Colvin)

EPILOGUE

Hopes and fears at home—Fanny Brawne: Leigh Hunt—Supposed effect of reviews—Shelley misled and inspired—Adonais—A Blackwood Parody—False impressions confirmed—Death of Shelley—Hazlitt and Severn—Brown at Florence—Inscription for Keats’s grave—Severn and Walter Scott—Slow growth of Keats’s fame—Its beginnings at Cambridge—Opinion in the early ‘forties—Would-be biographers at odds—Taylor and Brown: Brown and Dilke—A solution: Monckton Milnes—The old circle: Hunt and Haydon—John Hamilton Reynolds—Haslam, Severn, Bailey—Flaws and slips in Milnes’s work—Its merit and timeliness—Its reception—The Pre-Raphaelites—Rossetti and Morris—The battle won: Later critics—Keats and Shelley—Pitfalls and prejudices—Arnold and Palgrave—Mr. Buxton Forman and others—Latest eulogists—Risks to permanence of fame—His will conquer—Youth and its storms—The might-have-been—Guesses and a certainty.

The friends of Keats at home had in their love for him tried hard after his departure to nurse some sparks of hope for his recovery. John Hamilton Reynolds, answering from Exmouth a letter in which Taylor told him of the poet’s having sailed, wrote, ‘I am very much pleased at what you tell me. I cannot now but hold a hope of his refreshed health, which I confess his residence in England greatly discouraged…. Keats, then, by this is at sea fairly—with England and one or two sincere friends behind him,—and with a warm clime before his face! If ever I wished well to Man, I wish well to him!’ Haslam in a like strain of feeling wrote in December to Severn at Rome:—‘The climate, however, will, I trust, avail him. Keep him quiet, get the winter through; an opening year in Italy will perfect everything. Ere this reaches you, I trust Doctor Clark will have confirmed the most sanguine hopes of his friends in England; and to you, my friend, I hope he will have given what you stand much in need of—a confidence amounting to a faith…. Keats must get himself well again, Severn, if but for us. I, for one, cannot afford to lose him. If I know what it is to love, I truly love John Keats.’ The letters written by Severn to this faithful friend during the voyage and from beside the sick-bed were handed round and eagerly scanned among the circle. Brown, when they came into his hands, used to read passages from them at his discretion to the Brawne ladies next door, keeping the darkest from the daughter by her mother’s wish. Mrs Brawne, evidently believing her child’s heart to be deeply engaged, dealt in the same manner with Severn’s letters to herself. The girl seems to have divined none the less that her lover’s condition was past hope, and her demeanour, according to Brown’s account as follows, to have been human and natural. Keats, writes Brown in a broken style,—

Keats is present to me everywhere and at all times—he now seems sitting by my side and looking hard in my face, though I have taken the opportunity of writing this in company—for I scarcely believe I could do it alone. Much as I have loved him, I never knew how closely he was wound about my heart. Mrs Brawne was greatly agitated when I told her of—and her daughter—I don’t know how—for I was not present—yet she bears it with great firmness, mournfully but without affectation. I understand she says to her mother, ‘I believe he must soon die, and when you hear of his death, tell me immediately. I am not a fool!’

As the news grew worse, it seems to have been more and more kept back from her, injudiciously as Brown thought, and in a mutilated letter he gives glimpses of moods in her, apparently hysterical, of alternate forced gaiety and frozen silence. A letter or two which she had written to her dying lover were withheld from him, as we have seen, by reason of the terrible agitation into which the mere sight of her handwriting threw him. We hear in the meantime of her being in close correspondence with his young sister at Walthamstow. When the news of the end came, Brown writes,—‘I felt at the moment utterly unprepared for it. Then she—she was to have it told her, and the worst had been concealed from her knowledge ever since your December letter. It is now five days since she heard it. I shall not speak of the first shock, nor of the following days,—it is enough she is now pretty well,—and thro’out she has shown a firmness of mind which I little expected from one so young, and under such a load of grief.’

Leigh Hunt had written in these days a letter to Severn which did not reach Rome until after Keats’s death. I must quote it as showing yet again the strength of the hold which Keats had on the hearts of his friends, and how he, in a second degree only to Shelley, had struck on something much deeper in Hunt’s nature than the sunny, kindly, easy-going affectionateness which was all that in most relations he had to bestow:—

Judge how often I thought of Keats, and with what feelings. Mr Brown tells me he is comparatively calm now. If he can bear to hear of us, pray tell him; but he knows it all already, and can put it in better language than any man. I hear he does not like to be told that he may get better, nor is it to be wondered at, considering his firm persuasion that he shall not thrive. But if this persuasion should happen no longer to be so strong upon him, or if he can now put up with such attempts to console him, remind him of what I have said a thousand times, and what I still (upon my honour I swear) think always, that I have seen too many cases of recovery from apparently desperate cases of consumption, not to indulge in hope to the very last. If he still cannot bear this, tell him—tell that great poet and noble-hearted man that we shall all bear his memory in the most precious part of our hearts, and that the world shall bow their heads to it as our loves do. Or if this will trouble his spirit, tell him that we shall never cease to remember and love him, and that Christian or Infidel, the most sceptical of us has faith enough in the high things that nature puts into our heads, to think that all who are of one accord in mind or heart are journeying to one and the same place, and shall meet somehow or other again, face to face, mutually conscious, mutually delighted. Tell him he is only before us on the road, as he was in everything else; or whether you tell him the latter or no, tell him the former, and add, that we shall never forget that he was so, and that we are coming after him. The tears are again in my eyes, and I must not afford to shed them.

During Keats’s year of illness and dejection at home, and until the end and after it, the general impression among his friends and acquaintances was that the cause of all his troubles was the agony of mind into which the hostile reviews had thrown him. Severn in the course of his tendance discovered, as we have seen, that this was not so, and learnt the full share which was due to the pangs of unsatisfied, and in a worldly sense hopeless, passion in a consumptive constitution. Brown on his part, although he knew the secret of the heart which Keats so jealously guarded, yet attributed the chief part of his friend’s distress to the fear of impending poverty—truly another contributing cause—and conceived a fierce and obstinate indignation against George for having, as he quite falsely imagined, deliberately fleeced his brother, as well as against other friends who had borrowed money from the poet and failed to pay it back. But most of those who knew Keats less intimately, seeing his sudden fall from robustness and high spirits,—having never thought of him as a possible consumptive subject,—and being themselves white-hot with anger against Blackwood and the Quarterly,—inferred the poet’s feelings from their own, and at the same time added fuel to their wrath against the critics, by taking it for granted that it was their cruelty which was killing him.

To no one was this impression conveyed in a more extravagant form than to Shelley, presumably through his friends the Gisbornes. In that letter of remonstrance to Gifford, as editor of the Quarterly, which he drafted in the autumn of 1820 but never sent, Shelley writes:—

Poor Keats was thrown into a dreadful state of mind by this review, which I am, persuaded, was not written with any intention of producing the effect, to which it has, at least, greatly contributed, of embittering his existence, and inducing a disease from which there are now but faint hopes of his recovery. The first effects are described to me to have resembled insanity, and it was by assiduous watching that he was restrained from effecting purposes of suicide. The agony of his sufferings at length produced the rupture of a blood-vessel in the lungs, and the usual process of consumption appears to have begun.

In the preface to Adonais, composed at San Giuliano, near Pisa, in the June following Keats’s death in the next year, Shelley repeats the same delusion in different words, adding the still less justified statement,—probably founded by his informant, Colonel Finch, on expressions used by Brown to Severn about George Keats and other borrowers,—that Keats’s misery had been ‘exasperated by the bitter sense of unrequited benefits:—the poor fellow seems to have been hooted from the stage of life, no less by those on whom he had wasted the promise of his genius, than those on whom he had lavished his fortune and his care.’ Of the critical attacks upon Keats, Shelley seems not to have known the Blackwood lampoons, and to have put down all the mischief (as did Byron following him) to the Quarterly alone. With his heart and soul full of passionate poetic regret for what the world had lost in the death of the author of Hyperion, and of passionate human indignation against the supposed agents of his undoing, Shelley wrote that lament for Keats which is the best of his longer poems and next toLycidas the noblest of its class in the language. Like Milton, Shelley chose to conform to a consecrated convention and link his work to a long tradition by going back to the precedent of the Sicilian pastoral elegies, those beautiful examples of a form even in its own day conventional and literary. He took two masterpieces of that school, the dirge or ritual chant of Bion on the death of Adonis and the elegy of Moschus on the death of Bion, and into strains directly caught and blended from both of these wove inseparably a new strain of imagery and emotion entirely personal and his own.

The human characteristics of the lamented person, the flesh and blood realities of life, are not touched or thought upon. A rushing train of abstractions, such as were at all times to Shelley more inspiring and more intensely realized than persons and things,—a rushing train of beautiful and sorrowful abstractions sweeps by, in Adonais, to a strain of music so entrancing that at a first, or even at a twentieth, reading it is perhaps more to the music of the poem than to its imagery that the spiritual sense of the reader attends. Nevertheless he will find at last that the imagery, all unsubstantial as it is, has been floated along the music into his mental being to haunt and live with him: he will be conscious of a possession for ever in that invocation of the celestial Muse to awake and weep for the youngest of her sons,—that pageant of the dead poet’s own dreams and imaginations conceived as gathering ‘like mist over an autumnal stream’ to attend upon his corpse,—the voice of Echo silenced (again a direct adaptation from the Greek) since she has no longer words of his to repeat and awaken the spring withal,—the vision of the coming of Urania to the death chamber,—her lament, with its side-shafts of indignation against the wolves and ravens who have made her youngest-born their prey—the approach and homage of the other ‘mountain shepherds,’ Byron, Shelley himself, Moore, Leigh Hunt, all figured, especially Shelley, in a guise purely abstract and mythologic and yet after its own fashion passionately true,—the bitter ironic application to the reviewers of the verses from Moschus used as a motto to the poem,—

Our Adonais has drunk poison—oh!
What deaf and viperous murderer could crown
Life’s early cup with such a draught of woe?—

 

the swift change to a consolatory strain exhorting the mourners to cease their grief and recognise that the lost poet is made one with Nature and that it is Death who is dead, not he,—the invitation to the beautiful burial-place at Rome,—the high strain of Platonic meditation on the transcendental permanence of the One while the Many change and pass,—the final vision by the rapt spirit of Shelley of the soul of his brother poet beckoning like a star from the abode of the Eternals.

Looking upon his own work in his modest and unsanguine way, Shelley could not suppress the hope that this time he had written something that should not be utterly neglected. He had the poem printed at Pisa, whence a small number of copies only were sent to England. One immediate effect was to instigate the last and silliest—happily, perhaps, also the least remembered—of the Blackwood blackguardries. Not even the tragic experiences of the preceding winter had cured the conductors of that journal of their taste for savage ribaldry. John Scott, the keen-witted and warm-hearted editor, formerly of the Champion and latterly of Taylor’s and Hessey’s London Magazine, had denounced the ‘Z’ papers, and demanded a disclosure of Lockhart’s share in them and in the management of the magazine, in terms so peremptory and scathing that the threat of a challenge from Lockhart followed as an inevitable consequence. The clumsy, well meant intromission of third parties had only the effect of substituting Lockhart’s friend Christie in the broil for Lockhart himself. The duel was fought on January 16, 1821, exactly a week before Keats’s death, and Scott was killed. None the less, when late in the summer of the same year copies ofAdonais reached England, remarks on it outdoing all previous outbreaks in folly and insolence were contributed to Blackwood by a comparatively new recruit, the learned and drunken young Dublin scholar William Maginn. Professing absurdly to regard the cockney school as a continuation of the ‘Della Cruscan’ school laughed out of existence by Gifford some five-and-twenty years earlier, the writer includes Shelley of all men (forgetting former laudations of him) among the cockneys, flings up a heel at the memory of Keats as ‘a young man who had left a decent calling for the melancholy trade of cockney-poetry and has lately died of a consumption after having written two or three little books of verse much neglected by the public’; and proceeds to give a comic analysis ofAdonais, with some specimens of parody upon it, which were afterwards re-published without shame under Maginn’s name.

Eight years later, as we shall see, it was on the enthusiasm of a band of young Cambridge men for Adonais that the fame of Keats began to be spread abroad among our younger generation in England. In the meantime the chief effect of the poem was to confirm in the minds of the few readers whom it reached the sentimental view of Keats as an over-sensitive weakling whom the breath of hostile criticism had withered up. And when two years later Byron printed in the eleventh canto of Don Juan his patronizing semi-palinode, part laudatory part contemptuous, on Keats, his closing couplet,

Strange that the mind, that very fiery particle,
Should let itself be snuffed out by an article,

 

stamped that impression for good on the minds of men in far wider circles, until the publication of Monckton Milnes’s memoir after five-and-twenty years brought evidence to modify if not to efface it.

None of Keats’s friends at home did anything in the days following his death to counteract such impression. Some of them, as we have said, fully shared and helped to propagate it. Haydon, writing to Miss Mitford soon after the news of the death reached England, says ‘Keats was a victim of personal abuse and want of nerve to bear it. Ought he to have sunk in that way because a few quizzers told him he was an apothecary’s apprentice?… Fiery, impetuous, ungovernable and undecided, he expected the world to bow at once to his talents as his friends had done, and he had not patience to bear the natural irritation of envy at the undoubted proof he gave of strength.’ In his private journal Haydon treats the events in the same spirit, not forgetting to imply a contrast between Keats’s weakness and his own power of stubbornly presenting his prickles to his enemies. Reynolds, it would seem, had more excuse than others for adopting the same view, inasmuch as Keats had said to him on his sick-bed, in one of his extremely rare allusions to the subject,—‘If I die, you must ruin Lockhart.’ In the summer following Keats’s death, Reynolds published a little volume of verse dedicated to the young bride at whose bidding he was abandoning literature for law, and included in it the two versified tales from Boccaccio which he had originally planned for printing together with Keats’s Isabella: as to which pieces he says,—

They were to have been associated with tales from the same source, intended to have been written by a friend, but illness on his part, and distracting engagements on mine, prevented us from accomplishing our plan at the time; and Death now, to my deep sorrow, has frustrated it for ever! He, who is gone, was one of the very kindest friends I possessed, and yet he was not kinder perhaps to me, than to others. His intense mind and powerful feeling would, I truly believe, have done the world some service, had his life been spared—but he was of too sensitive a nature—and thus he was destroyed!

Later in the same summer, 1822, befell the tragedy of Shelley’s own death, such a tragedy of a poet’s death as a poet might have loved to invent with all its circumstances,—the disappearance of the boat in a squall; the recovery of the body with the volume of Keats’s poems in the coat-pocket; its consumption on a funeral pyre by the Tuscan shore in the presence of Leigh Hunt, newly come to Italy on Shelley’s invitation, of Byron, and of the Cornish sea-rover and social rebel Trelawny, a personage who might well have been a creation of Byron’s brain; the snatching of the heart from the flames; the removal of the ashes to Rome, and their deposit in a new Protestant burial-ground adjacent to the old, where the remains of Trelawny were to be laid beside them after the lapse of nearly sixty years.

Two years later again, when Byron had himself died during the struggle for the liberation of Greece, Hazlitt took occasion to criticize Shelley’s posthumous poems in the Edinburgh Review, and having his own bitter grounds of quarrel with the Blackwood gang, strained the bonds of prose in an outburst of half-lyric indignation on behalf of Keats as follows:—

Mr Shelley died, it seems, with a volume of Mr Keats’s poetry grasped with one hand in his bosom! These are two out of four poets, patriots and friends, who have visited Italy within a few years, both of whom have been soon hurried to a more distant shore. Keats died young; and ‘yet his infelicity had years too many.’ A canker had blighted the tender bloom that o’erspread a face in which youth and genius strove with beauty; the shaft was sped—venal, vulgar, venomous, that drove him from his country, with sickness and penury for companions, and followed him to his grave. And yet there are those who could trample on the faded flower—men to whom breaking hearts are a subject of merriment—who laugh loud over the silent urn of Genius, and play out their game of venality and infamy with the crumbling bones of their victims!

Severn, living on at Rome in the halo of sympathy and regard with which the story of his friend’s death and his own devotion had justly surrounded him, seems to have done nothing to remove from the minds of the English colony through successive years an impression which he knew to have been only in a very partial measure true. And even Brown, when in the year after Keats’s death he came out with his natural son, a child of a few years, to make his home in Italy, in his turn let himself fall in with the view of Keats’s sufferings and of their origin which had taken such strong hold on the minds of most persons interested and commended itself so naturally to the tender-hearted and the righteously indignant. Brown did not come to Rome, but established himself first at Pisa and afterwards at Florence. At Pisa he saw something both of Trelawny and of Byron, who took to him kindly; and made several contributions to the Liberal during the brief period while Hunt continued to conduct that journal at Pisa after Shelley’s death and before his final rupture with Byron and departure from Italy. The Greek adventure having in 1823 carried off Trelawny for a season and Byron never to return, Brown settled at Florence and became for some years a popular member of the lettered English colony in Tuscany, living in intimacy with Seymour Kirkup, the artist and man of fortune who was for many years the centre of that circle, and before long admitted to the regard and hospitality of Walter Savage Landor in his beautiful Fiesolan villa. Landor, as readers will hardly need to be reminded, was an early, firm, and just admirer of Keats’s poetry.

It was not until some five years after Byron’s death in Greece that Trelawny came back to settle for a while again in Tuscany. Then, in 1829, he and Brown being at the time housemates, Brown helped him in preparing for the press his autobiographical romance, The Adventures of a Younger Son, and especially by supplying mottoes in verse for its chapter-headings, chiefly from the unpublished poems of Keats in his possession. One day Trelawny said to him that ‘Brown’ was no right distinguishing name for a man, or even for a family, but merely the name of a tribe: whereupon and whenceforward, adding to his own Christian name one that had been borne by a deceased brother, he took to styling himself, not always in familiar but regularly in formal signatures, Charles Armitage Brown. It is both anachronism and pedantry to give him these names, as is often done, in writing of him in connexion with Keats, to whom he was never anything but plain Charles Brown.

Of Keats Brown’s thoughts had in the meantime remained full. From his first arrival in Italy he had been in close communication with Severn as to the memorial stone and inscription to be placed over the poet’s grave at Rome and as to the biography to be written of him. He let the wish expressed by Keats that his epitaph should be ‘here lies one whose name was writ in water’ stand for him as an absolute command, and studied how to combine those words with others explaining their choice as due to the poet’s sense of neglect by his countrymen. In the end the result agreed on between him and Severn was that which, despite much after-regret on Severn’s and some on Brown’s part and many proposals of change, still stands, having been carefully re-cut and put in order more than half a century after the poet’s death:—namely a design of a lyre with only two of its strings strung, and an inscription perpetuating the idea of the poet having been a victim to the malice of his enemies:—

                     THIS GRAVE
CONTAINS ALL THAT WAS MORTAL
OF A
YOUNG ENGLISH POET
WHO
ON HIS DEATH BED,
IN THE BITTERNESS OF HIS HEART,
AT THE MALICIOUS POWER OF HIS ENEMIES,
DESIRED
THESE WORDS TO BE ENGRAVEN ON HIS TOMB STONE
“HERE LIES ONE
WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER.”

February 24th, 1821.

Severn in his correspondence with Brown at Florence, and with Haslam and other friends at home, shows himself always loyally anxious to attribute to his connexion with Keats the social acceptance and artistic success which he found himself enjoying from the first at Rome, and to which in fact his own actively amiable nature, his winning manners and facile, suave pictorial talent, in a great measure contributed. Though the general feeling towards the memory of Keats among English residents and visitors was sympathetic, there were not lacking voices to repeat the stock gibe,—‘”his name was writ in water”; yes, and his poetry in milk and water.’ Severn eagerly notes any signs of increasing appreciation of his friend’s poetry, or of changed opinion on the part of scoffers, that came under his notice. One touching incident he recorded in later life as having happened in the spring of 1832, the eleventh year after Keats’s death. Sir Walter Scott, stricken with premature decrepitude from the labour and strain of mind undergone in his six years’ colossal effort to clear himself of debt after the Constable crash, had come abroad with his daughter Anne in the hope of regaining some measure of health and strength from rest and southern air. (1) He spent a spring month at Rome, surrounded with attentions and capable of some sight-seeing, but could not shake off his grief for what he had lost in the death there two years earlier of his beloved Lady Northampton, whose beauty and charm and gift for verse and song (her singing portrait by Raeburn is one of the most beautiful in the world) had endeared her to him from childhood in her island home in Mull. Scott’s distress in thinking of her was pitiable, and he found some relief in pouring himself out to the sympathetic Severn, who had known her well.

By Scott’s desire Severn went every morning to see him, generally bringing some picture or sketch to amuse him. One morning Severn having innocently shown him the portrait of Keats reproduced at page 338 of this book, and said something about his genius and fate, observed Anne Scott turn away flushed and embarrassed, while Scott took Severn’s hand to close the interview, and said falteringly, ‘yes, yes, the world finds out these things for itself at last.’ The story has been commonly, but without reason, scouted as though it implied a guilty conscience in Scott himself as to the Blackwood lampoons. It implies nothing of the kind. Scott had indeed had nothing to do with these matters: but one of his nearest and dearest had. The current belief that the death of Keats had been caused or hastened by Lockhart’s attack in Blackwood, with the tragic circumstances of the Christie-Scott duel, however little he may have said about them, will assuredly have left in a heart so great and tender an abiding regret and pain, and his manner and words on being reminded of them, as recorded by Severn, are perfectly in character.

By degrees the signs of admiration for Keats’s work noted by Severn become more frequent. Young Mr Gladstone, coming fresh from Oxford to Rome in this same year 1832, seeks him out because of his friendship for the poet. Another year a group of gentlemen and ladies in the English colony propose to give an amateur performance of the unpublished Otto the Great, a proposal never, it would seem, carried out. But despite the loyal enthusiasm of special English circles abroad and the untiring tributes of Leigh Hunt and other friends and admirers at home, his repute among the reading public in general was of extraordinarily slow growth. In the interval of some score of years between the death of Byron and the establishment—itself slow and contested—of Tennyson’s position, Byron and Scott held with most even of open-minded judges an uncontested sovereignty among recent English poets; while among a growing minority the fame of Wordsworth steadily grew, and the popular and sentimental suffrage was given to writers of the calibre of Felicia Hemans and Letitia Landon, feminine talents and temperaments truly not to be despised, however ephemeral has proved their fame.

So small was the demand for Keats’s poetry that the remaining stock of his original three volumes sufficed throughout nearly this score of years to supply it. The yeast was nevertheless working. We know of one famous instance, so far back as 1825, when a gift of the original volumes of Keats and Shelley inspired the recipient—the lad Robert Browning, then aged fourteen—with a fervent and wholly new conception, as he used afterwards to declare, of the scope and power of poetry. Young John Sterling, writing in 1828 in the Athenaeum, of which his friend and senior Frederick Denison Maurice was for the time being editor, showed which way the wind was beginning to blow at Cambridge when he said, ‘Keats, whose memory they (the Blackwood group) persevered only a few months back in spitting upon, was, as everyone knows who has read him, among the most intense and delightful English poets of our day.’ (2) But no reprint of Keats’s poems was published until 1829, and then only by the Paris house of Galignani, who printed for the continental market, in a single tall volume with double columns, a collective edition of the poems of Shelley, Coleridge, and Keats. (3) The same year saw the reprint of Adonais on the initiative of Arthur Hallam and his group of undergraduate friends at Cambridge, and the visit of three of the group, Hallam himself, Monckton Milnes, and Sunderland, to uphold in debate at Oxford the opinion that Shelley was a greater poet than Byron. Their enthusiasm for Adonais implied enthusiasm for its subject, Keats, as a matter of course.

Alfred Tennyson was a close associate of this group; and from the first, among recent influences, it was that of Keats which did most to colour his style in poetry and make him strive to ‘load every rift of a subject with ore.’ His friend Edward FitzGerald shared the same admiration to the full. But these young pioneer spirits still stood, except for the surviving band of Keats’s early friends, almost alone. Wilson, it is true, with whom consistency counted for nothing, had by this time shown signs of wavering, and in his character as Christopher North speaks of Keats’s ‘genius’ being shown to best advantage in Lamia andIsabella,—but does so, we feel, less for the sake of praising Keats than of getting in a dig at Jeffrey for having praised him tardily and indiscriminately.(4) TheQuarterly remained quite impenitent, and in a review of Tennyson’s second volume of 1832 writes of him with viciously laboured irony as ‘a new prodigy of genius—another and brighter star of a galaxy or milky way of poetry, of which the lamented Keats was the harbinger’; and then follows a gibing testimony, to be read in the same inverted sense, of the vast popularity which Endymion has notoriously attained. (5) So far as popularity was concerned, the Quarterly gibe remained justified. It was not until 1840 that there appeared in England the first separate reprint of Keats’s collected poems: (6) what is sad to relate is that even this edition found a scanty sale, and that before long ‘remainder’ copies of it were being bound up by the booksellers with the ‘remainders’ of another unsuccessful issue of the day, the series of Bells and Pomegranates by Robert Browning.

After an interval of thirteen years, John Sterling must still, in 1841, write to Julius Hare as follows:—

Lately I have been reading again some of Alfred Tennyson’s second volumes, and with profound admiration of his truly lyric and idyllic genius. There seems to me to have been more epic power in Keats, that fiery beautiful meteor; but they are two most true and great poets. When one thinks of the amount of recognition they have received, one may well bless God that poetry is in itself strength and joy, whether it be crowned by all mankind or left alone in its own magic hermitage.7

So late as 1844, Jeffrey, who in spite of the justice he had been induced to do to Keats in his lifetime, had no real belief in the new poetry and was an instinctive partisan of the conventional eighteenth-century style, could write that the ‘rich melodies’ of Keats and Shelley were passing out of public memory, and that the poets of their age destined to enduring fame were Campbell and Rogers. De Quincey in 1845 could grotesquely insult the memory and belittle the work of Keats in a passage pouring scorn on Endymion, treating Hyperion as his only achievement that counted, and ending,—‘Upon this mother tongue, upon this English language has Keats trampled as with the hoofs of a buffalo. With its syntax, with its prosody, with its idiom, he has played such fantastic tricks as could only enter the heart of a barbarian, and for which only the anarchy of Chaos could furnish a forgiving audience. Verily it required Hyperion to weigh against the deep treason of these unparalleled offences.’ (8)

In the meantime none of Keats’s friends had succeeded in doing anything to strengthen his reputation or make his true character known by the publication either of a personal memoir or of his poetry that remained in manuscript. Several of them had fully desired and intended to do both these things. But mutual jealousies and dislikes, such as are but too apt to break out among the surviving intimates of a man of genius, had prevented any such purpose taking effect. Taylor and Woodhouse had been first in the field, collecting what material for a memorial volume they could, including the transcripts zealously made by Woodhouse from Keats’s papers while he was alive, and others, both verse and correspondence, which they had borrowed from Reynolds. But help both from Brown and from George Keats would have been necessary to give anything like completeness to their work; and Brown, who himself desired to be his friend’s biographer, looked askance at them and their project. As for information or material from George Keats, Brown on his part was debarred from seeking it by his obstinate conviction, reiterated in all companies and on all occasions and naturally resented by its subject, that George was a traitor, cheat, and villain. When Fanny Keats came of age in 1824, the duty devolved on Dilke of going into the family accounts and putting pressure on Abbey, who had proved a muddler both of his wards’ affairs and of his own, to make over the residue of the estate which he held in trust. In the discharge of this duty Dilke satisfied himself, as a practical man of business, that George’s conduct had been strictly upright and his motives honourable. But Brown refused to let his prejudices be shaken; and he and Dilke, though they met both in Italy and later in England, were never again on their old terms of friendship and mutual regard. Brown, criticizing Dilke in his influential position as editor of the Athenaeum after 1830 and as a learned and recognized authority on various problems of literary history, declares that he has become dogmatic and arrogant from success. Dilke, writing confidentially of Brown, scouts the notion which had got abroad of his having been a ‘generous benefactor’ to Keats, and insists that he had always expected to profit by a literary partnership with the poet, and after his death had demanded and received from the estate payment in full, with interest, of all advances made by him.

So much—and the reader may hold it more than enough—in order to explain why no sufficient memoir of Keats or collection of his remains could be published by his surviving friends. Brown, indeed, wrote some ten years after Keats’s death the brief memoir of which I have freely made use in these pages, and tried some editors with it, but in vain. Destiny had provided otherwise and better. One of the Cambridge group of Shelley-Keats enthusiasts of 1830, Richard Monckton Milnes, being in Italy with his family not long after his degree, visited Rome and Florence in 1833 and 1834, and with his genius for knowing, liking, and being liked by everybody, made immediate friends with Severn at Rome, and at Florence soon found his way to Landor’s home at the Villa Gherardesca, and there met and was quickly on good terms with Brown. Some two or three years later Brown left Tuscany for good and established himself at Laira Green, near Plymouth, where he lived the life of amateur in letters, a busy local lecturer and contributor to local journals, and published his very ingenious interpretation of Shakespeare’s sonnets as a cryptic autobiography of the poet, continuing the while to nurse the hope and desire of being Keats’s biographer. He had all but concluded an arrangement for the publication of his memoir in the Monthly Chronicle, when one day near the end of 1840, having heard a lecture on the prospects of the then young colony of New Zealand, he determined suddenly to emigrate thither with his son, who had been in training as a civil engineer; and before he left designated Monckton Milnes, with whom he had not ceased to keep in touch, as the fit man to do justice to Keats’s memory, and handed to him all his own cherished material.

Within a year Brown had died in New Zealand of an apoplectic stroke. Monckton Milnes was faithful to his trust, but not swift or prompt in fulfilling it. That was more than could well have been expected of a man of so many interests and pursuits and so eager in them all,—poet, politician, orator, wit, entertainer, athirst and full of relish for every varied cup of experience and every social or intellectual pleasure or activity, or opportunity for help or kindness, that life had to offer him. It was not until the fifth year after Brown’s departure that he buckled to his task. He began by collecting, with some measure of secretarial help from Coventry Patmore, further information and material from all the surviving friends of Keats whom he could hear of. George Keats had died at Louisville, Kentucky, in 1842, leaving an honoured memory among his fellow citizens; and his widow had taken a second husband, a Mr Jeffrey, who on Milnes’s request sent him among other material copies, unluckily very imperfect, of Keats’s incomparable journal-letters to George and to herself. From Cowden Clarke, the happiest of all Keats’s friends in after-life, happy in a perfect marriage, the sunniest of dispositions, and a sustained success in the congenial occupation of a public reader in and lecturer on Shakespeare and other poets,—from Cowden Clarke and from Keats’s younger school friend Edward Holmes, Milnes drew the information about Keats’s school days which I have quoted above almost in full. Leigh Hunt, the friend whom Keats owed to Clarke and who had had the most decisive influence on his life, had passed with advancing years, not indeed out of his lifelong, lightly borne condition of debt and poverty and embarrassment and household worry, but out of the old atmosphere of obloquy and contention into one of peace, and of affectionate regard all but universal as the most genial and companionable, the most versatile, industrious and sweet-natured of literary veterans, praised and admired, to a pitch almost of generous passion, even by the growler Carlyle, who had nothing but a gibe of contempt to bestow upon the weaknesses of a Lamb or a Keats. In regard to Keats, Hunt had said his say, personal and critical, long ago, in the unwise but in its day grossly over-reviled book Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries (1828), as well as in many incidental notes and observations through thirty years, and especially in that masterpiece in his own vein of criticism, Imagination and Fancy (1844). Accordingly he had now little that was fresh to tell the biographer. As for Haydon, the destiny he had in the old days been used to prophesy for Hunt,—even such a destiny, and worse, had in the irony of things befallen himself. That tragic gulf which existed in him between ambition and endowment, between temperament and faculty, had led him through ever fiercer contentions and deeper and more desperate difficulties to the goal of suicide. This had happened in the days when the biographer of Keats was just setting hand to his task; hence such accounts of the poet as I have quoted from Haydon were not at Milnes’s disposal, but are drawn from later posthumous publications of the painter’s journals and correspondence. By way of farewell to this ill-starred overweening half-genius, I add here the facsimile of a page from a letter he wrote to Elizabeth Barrett in 1834, describing a scene of rather squalid tragi-comedy which he and Keats had witnessed at Hunt’s Hampstead cottage seventeen years before, and adding from memory a sketch of Keats’s profile, with an answer to his correspondent’s conjecture that the poet’s expression had been ‘too subtle for the brush.’

PAGE FROM A LETTER OF BENJAMIN ROBERT HAYDON TO ELIZABETH BARRETT, 1834

 

 

All the papers I possess—all the information I can render—whatever I can do to aid your kind and judiciously intended work—are at your service! But a word or two on the great subject of our correspondence. He was hunted in his youth, before he had strength to escape his ban-dogs. He had the greatest power of poetry in him, of any one since Shakespeare! He was the sincerest friend, the most lovable associate, the deepest listener to the griefs and disappointments of all around him ‘that ever lived in the tide of times.’ Your expressed intentions as to the Life are so clear and good; that I seem to have the weight of an undone work taken from me.Among Keats’s other intimate friends and associates, Mr Taylor let Monckton Milnes have the loan of the notes and transcripts bequeathed him by Woodhouse, who had died in 1834. Reynolds heard by accident of the intended biography, and never having quite abandoned his own purpose in the matter, wrote at first complainingly, resenting that use should be made of those letters of Keats to himself which he had allowed Woodhouse to copy. But a gracious answer quickly won him over, and he made the new biographer welcome to all his material. His own career had been a rather melancholy failure. He had never quite given up literature in accordance with the purpose he had declared on marriage. Indeed it was not until six years after that declaration, in 1825, that his best piece of work was done, in collaboration with his brother-in-law, Thomas Hood: I mean the anonymous volume of humorous poems, not inferior toRejected Addresses, called Odes and Addresses to Great People, which Coleridge confidently declared to be the work of Lamb. In later years Reynolds was a not infrequent contributor to the Edinburgh Review and to the Athenaeum under the editorship of Dilke. For some unspecified reason he did not prosper in the place which his friend Rice had found for him with the eminent firm of solicitors, the Fladgates; and in later life he was glad to accept a small piece of patronage as deputy clerk of the County Court at Newport in the Isle of Wight. Here, if the latest mention of him is to be trusted, he fell into self-neglecting habits and consequent disrepute. (9) In one of his letters to Milnes he speaks about ‘that poor, obscure, baffled thing, myself’: in another he declares his entire confidence in his correspondent, and his unfading admiration and affection for his lost friend, as follows:—

Haslam in like manner lends all the help he can, and from his office as a solicitor in Copthall Court writes somewhat dispiritedly about himself, and declares that this correspondence ‘has been a clean taking me back to a separate state of existence that I had more than thirty years ago, a state that has long appeared to me almost as a dream. The realities of life have intervened, but God be praised they have but been laid upon the surface—have but hidden, not effaced those happy happy days.’ He sends a number of letters from Severn, including those written on the voyage to Naples and quoted in full above. But as to letters from Keats himself says he has found none,—‘they probably were so well or intended to be so well taken care of, that every endeavour to lay my hands on them has proved unavailing.’ One wonders whether they may not be lurking yet, a forgotten bundle, in the dust of some unexplored corner of a safe in that same office. Severn was at this time living in London, and some correspondence passed between him and Milnes about the biography, Severn’s chief point being to insist that not the malice of the critics, but the ‘death-stricken’ marriage project, was the trouble preying upon Keats in his dying days, and that the outcries of his delirium ran constantly upon his unfulfilled love and unwritten poems together.

As to yet another of Keats’s closest friends, Benjamin Bailey, Milnes had somehow been misinformed, and believed and positively stated him to be dead. He had in fact risen to colonial preferment in the Church, and was alive and well as archdeacon of Colombo in Ceylon. Thence on the appearance of Milnes’s book he wrote to declare his survival, and forwarded to the biographer, for use in future editions, those memoranda of old days spent in Keats’s company upon which I have above (in Chapter V) so fully drawn.

There are a few other points upon which Milnes’s information was less accurate than might have been expected. He assumes that the fiancée of Keats’s tragic passion was identical with the rich-complexioned Charmian described in his autumn letters of 1819, and ignores the existence of Fanny Brawne and of her family. One would have supposed that he must have heard the real story both from Brown and from Dilke, whom Mrs Brawne had appointed trustee for her children, and who had not since lost sight of them. That kind lady herself met an unhappy fate, burned to death upon her own doorstep. Her daughter Fanny, ten years after her poet-lover’s death, married a Mr Lindo, who afterwards changed his name to Lindon, and of whom we know little except that he was at one time drawn into the meshes of Spanish politics and was afterwards one of the Commissioners for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Not long before her marriage, Mrs Lindon is recorded to have said of Keats that the kindest thing to his memory would be to let it die. Little wonder, perhaps, that she should have felt thus, when she remembered the tortured, the terrifying vehemence of his passion for herself and when, being probably incapable of independent literary judgment, she saw his name and work still made customary objects of critical derision. It is harder to forgive her when some time later we find her parting with her lover’s miniature, under pressure of some momentary money difficulty, to Dilke.

Neither does the biographer seem to have made any attempt to get into touch with Keats’s young sister, who had been married long before this to an accomplished Spanish man of letters, Señor Valentine Llanos. He also was at various times involved in the political troubles of his country. Of his and his wife’s children, one attained distinction as an artist and assumed the name of Keats y Llanos. Keats had written to his sister once as a child gaily prophesying that they all, her brothers and herself, would live to have ‘tripple chins and stubby thumbs.’ She in fact fully attained the predicted length of days, and having lived to be well assured of the full and final triumph of her brother’s fame died less than thirty years ago at eighty-six. In mature life she had come into touch with one at least of her brother’s surviving familiars, that is with Severn at Rome, and with more than one of his admirers in a younger generation. Of these a good friend to her was Mr Buxton Forman, through whose initiative a Civil List pension was awarded her by Lord Beaconsfield. A subtle observer, the poet and humorist, Frederick Locker-Lampson, has left a rather disappointing though not unkindly impression of her as follows:—

Whilst I was in Rome Mr Severn introduced me to M. and Mme. Valentine de Llanos, a kindly couple. He was a Spaniard, lean, silent, dusky, and literary, the author of Don Esteban and Sandoval. She was fat, blonde, and lymphatic, and both were elderly. She was John Keats’s sister! I had a good deal of talk with her, or rather at her, for she was not very responsive. I was disappointed, for I remember that my sprightliness made her yawn; she seemed inert and had nothing to tell me of her wizard brother of whom she spoke as of a mystery—with a vague admiration but a genuine affection. She was simple and natural—I believe she is a very worthy woman.

Gaps and errors there thus were not a few in Monckton Milnes’s book when it appeared in two volumes in 1848. But it served its purpose admirably for the time being, and with some measure of revision for long afterwards. Distinguished in style and perfect in temper, the preface and introduction struck with full confidence the right note in challenging for Keats the character of ‘the Marcellus of the Empire of English song’; while the body of the book, giving to the world a considerable, though far from complete, series of those familiar letters, to his friends in which his genius shines almost as vividly as in his verse, established on full evidence the essential manliness of his character against the conception of him as a blighted weakling which both his friends and enemies had contrived to let prevail. Among the posthumous poems printed for the first time, the two longest, Otho and the Cap and Bells were not of his best, but masterpieces like La Belle Dame and The Eve of St Mark, with many miscellaneous things of high interest, were included. The reception of the book, though not, of course, unmixed, was in all quarters respectful, and the old tone of flippant contempt hardly made itself heard at all. I shall quote only one critical dictum on its appearance, and that is the letter in which the veteran Landor, in his highest style of urbanity and authority, acknowledged a copy sent him by the author:—

Dear Milnes,

On my return to Bath last evening, after six weeks’ absence, I find your valuable present of Keatses Works. He better deserves such an editor than I such a mark of your kindness. Of all our poets, excepting Shakespeare and Milton, and perhaps Chaucer, he has most of the poetical character—fire, fancy, and diversity…. There is an effluence of power and light pervading all his works, and a freshness such as we feel in the glorious dawn of Chaucer.

The book appeared just at the right moment, when the mounting enthusiasm of the young generation for the once derided poet was either gradually carrying the elders along with it or leaving them bewildered behind. Do readers remember how the simple soul of Colonel Newcome was perplexed by the talk of his son Clive and of Clive’s friends?—

He heard opinions that amazed and bewildered him: he heard that Byron was no great poet, though a very clever man … that his favourite, Doctor Johnson, talked admirably, but did not write English; that young Keats was a genius to be estimated in future days with young Raphael; and that a young gentleman of Cambridge who had lately published two volumes of verses might take rank with the greatest poets of all. Doctor Johnson not write English! Lord Byron not one of the greatest poets of the world! Sir Walter a poet of the second order! Mr Pope attacked for inferiority and want of imagination; Mr Keats and this young Mr. Tennyson of Cambridge, the chief of modern poetic literature! What were these new dicta, which Mr. Warrington delivered with a puff of tobacco smoke; to which Mr. Honeyman blandly assented, and Clive listened with pleasure?

Thackeray’s sketch of Clive and his companions scarcely suggests, nor was it meant to suggest, the characteristics of the special group of young artists in whom, almost contemporaneously with the appearance of Milnes’s book, the enthusiasm for Keats had begun to burn at its whitest heat. I refer of course to the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. Of the three leaders of that movement, Holman Hunt, Millais, and Rossetti, it is hard to say which, in the late ‘forties and early ‘fifties, declared himself first or most ardent in Keats-worship. (10) Of Hunt’s exhibited pictures, one of the earliest showed the lovers in the Eve of St Agnesstealing past the sprawling porter and the sleeping bloodhound into the night; and of Millais’s earliest, one is from Isabella or the Pot of Basil, showing the merchant brothers and their sister and her lover at a meal in company (the well-known work, so queerly designed and executed with so much grip and character, now in the Walker Art Gallery at Liverpool). Rossetti had in these early days much less technical skill and training than either of his two associates. But from the first he was poet as well as painter, and instinctively and spiritually stood, we can well discern, much nearer to Keats than they did for all their enthusiasm.

Combining Italian blood and temperament with British upbringing, Rossetti added to his inherited and paternally inculcated knowledge and love of Dante a no less intense love and knowledge of English romance poetry, both that of the old ballads and that of the revival of 1800 and onwards. In boyhood and early youth waves of enthusiasm for different recent poets had swept over him one after another, first Shelley, then Keats, then Browning; but Keats, and next to Keats Coleridge, kept the strongest and deepest hold on him. When his first associates Hunt and Millais had parted from him on their several, widely divergent paths of public success and distinction, Rossetti became, in the comparative seclusion in which he chose to live, a powerful focus of romantic inspiration to younger men who came about him. He is reported to have urged upon William Morris that he should become a painter and not a poet, seeing that Keats had already done all there was to be done in poetry. Of all Keats’s poems, it was La belle dame sans Merci and The Eve of St Mark which most aroused the enthusiasm of Rossetti and his group. We have already seen how the latter fragment stands in our nineteenth-century poetry as a kind of bridge or stepping-stone between Chaucer and Morris. It was the task and destiny of Morris as a writer to give, by his abounding fertility and brooding delight in the telling of Greek and mediæval stories in verse, the most profuse and for the present perhaps the last expression to the pure romantic spirit in English narrative poetry: and to this effort Keats had given him the immediate impulse, though Chaucer was his ultimate great exemplar. Answering a congratulatory letter addressed to him by the veteran Cowden Clarke on the publication of the first volume of the Earthly Paradise, Morris speaks of ‘Keats for whom I have such a boundless admiration, and whom I venture to call one of my masters.’ I have quoted above (page 470) his emphatic later words to a like effect.

While the leaven was thus intensely working among a special group in England, an English poetess of quite other training and associations, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, paid in Aurora Leigh (1857) her well-known tribute to Keats in lines that are neither good as poetry nor accurate as fact, but in their chaotic way none the less passionately felt and haunting:—

By Keats’s soul, the man who never stepped
In gradual progress like another man,
But, turning grandly on his central self,
Ensphered himself in twenty perfect years
And died, not young, (the life of a long life
Distilled to a mere drop, falling like a tear
Upon the world’s cold cheek to make it burn
For ever;) by that strong accepted soul,
I count it strange and hard to understand
That nearly all young poets should write old.

 

Thus, between the effects of Monckton Milnes’s book and the enthusiasm of various groups of university men and poets and artists, the previously current contempt for Keats was from soon after the mid-century practically silenced and the battle for his fame, at least among the younger generation, won. He has counted for the last sixty years and more, alike in England and in America, as an uncontested great poet, whose works, collected or single, have been in demand in edition after edition. One of the earliest new issues was that edited in 1850 by Monckton Milnes, who continued nearly until the end, under his new style as Lord Houghton, to further by fresh editions and revisions the good work he had begun. Not only every professed critic and historian of our poetry, but nearly all our chief poets themselves, as Aubrey de Vere, James Russell Lowell, Matthew Arnold, Coventry Patmore, Swinburne, and latterly the present poet laureate, have been in various tones public commentators on Keats. All such comments have shed light upon his work in their degree. I can here only touch on a few special points and mention in their order a few of the contributions to the knowledge or appreciation of the poet which I think have helped the most.

One point to be remarked is that very few judges have seemed able to care equally for Keats and Shelley. A special devotion to Shelley, the poet who wedded himself in youth to a set of ready-made beliefs from Godwin, of which the chief was that all the miseries of the world were due to laws and institutions and could be cured by their abolition, who clothed these abstract beliefs in imagery of clouds and winds and ocean-streams, of meteor and rainbow and sunset and all things radiant and evanescent, and sang them to strains of music inimitably swift and passionate, seems incompatible with complete delight in the work of that other young poet who could hold fast no dogma spiritual or social, but found truth wherever his imagination could divine or create living and concrete beauty, and who, as to the sorrows of the world, was convinced that they were inherent in its very fabric and being, and yearned for knowledge and wisdom to assuage them but died before he had attained clearness or found his way. As between these two, Tennyson’s final and calm opinion is quoted by his son as follows:—‘Keats would have become one of the very greatest of all poets had he lived. At the time of his death there was apparently no sign of exhaustion or having written himself out; his keen poetical instinct was in full process of development at the time. Each new effort was a steady advance on that which had gone before. With all Shelley’s splendid imagery and colour, I find a sort of tenuity in his poetry.’ FitzGerald was much stronger on the same side, counting Shelley, to use his own words, as not worth Keats’s little finger. Matthew Arnold, who has said some memorably fine and just things about Keats, belittles the poetry of Shelley and even paradoxically prefers the prose of his essays and letters to his verse. With ardent Shelley-worshippers on the other hand full appreciation of Keats is rare. Swinburne, for one, has done little for Keats’s memory by the torrent of hyperbolical adjectives of alternate praise and blame which he has poured upon it. Mr William Rossetti, for whom Shelley is ‘one of the ultimate glories of our race and planet,’ has in his monograph on Keats, as I think, been icily unjust to his subject. And I can remember my admirable friend and colleague, Mr Richard Garnett of the British Museum, taking me roundly to task for the opinion, which I still stoutly hold, that the letters of Keats, with all their every-day humanity and fun and gossip, are in their wonderful sudden gleams and intuitions more vitally the letters of a poet than Shelley’s. But such preferences between two such contrasted geniuses and creators of beauty are perhaps inevitable, and have at any rate not prevented the equal and brotherly association of the two in the memorial house—the house in which Keats died—lately acquired and consecrated to their joint fame by representative English and Americans at Rome.

One great snare in judging of Keats is his variability of mood and opinion. The critic is apt to seize upon the expression of some one phase or attitude of mind that strikes him, and to theorize and draw conclusions from it as though it were permanent and dominant. The very excellence of what was best both in his poetry and himself is a second snare, tempting us to forget that after all he was but a lad, a genius and character not made but in the making. A third is the obvious and frankly avowed intensity of the sensuous elements in his nature. But the critic who casts these up against him should remember that it took the same capacity for sense-delights that inspired the rhapsodies on claret-drinking and nectarine-sucking in the letters, to inspire also, being spiritualized into imaginative emotion, the ‘blushful Hippocrene’ passage in the Nightingale ode or the feast of fruits, in all its pureness, of the revised Hyperion; and also that Keats, with his clear and sane self-consciousness, has rarely any doubt that the master bent within him was not his ‘exquisite sense of the luxurious’ but his love for the high things and thoughts which he calls ‘philosophy.’

It is a pity that the author of the one full and recent history of our poetry, the late Mr W.J. Courthope, should have been debarred from just appreciation of this poet alike by adopted dogma and by natural taste. Both led him to hold that the true power of poetry, the true test by which posterity must judge it, lies in the direct relations which it bears to the social and political activities of its period. That the re-awakening of the Western mind and imagination to nature and romance in the days of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars was a spiritual phenomenon not less important in human history than the wars themselves would have been a conception that his mind was incapable of entertaining. He supposed that Keats was indifferent to history or politics. But of history he was in fact an assiduous reader, and the secret of his indifference to politics, so far as it existed, was that those of his own time had to men of his years and way of thinking been a disillusion,—that the saving of the world from the grip of one great overshadowing tyranny had but ended in re-instating a number of ancient and minor tyrannies less interesting but not less tyrannical. To that which lies behind and above politics and history, to the general destinies and tribulations of the race, he was, as we have seen, not indifferent but only too acutely and tragically sensitive.

Turning to the chief real contributions to our appreciation and knowledge of Keats, I should give the first place to Matthew Arnold’s well-known essay11 of 1880. With his cunning art in the minting and throwing into circulation of phrases that cannot be forgotten, Arnold balanced the weaknesses against the strength of Keats’s work and character, blaming the gushing admirers who injured his memory by their ‘pawing and fondness,’ insisting on the veins of ‘flint and iron’ in his nature, insisting on his clear-sightedness, his lucidity, his perception of the vital connexion of beauty with truth and of both with joy, declaring that ‘no one else in English poetry, save Shakespeare, has in expression quite the fascinating felicity of Keats, his perfection of loveliness,’ and clenching all, with reference to Keats’s own saying, ‘I think I shall be among the English poets after my death,’ by the comment, ‘he is, he is with Shakespeare.(11) Almost simultaneously with Matthew Arnold’s essay, there appeared the very thoughtful and original study of Mrs F.M. Owen, in which were laid the foundations of a true understanding of Endymion as a parable of the experiences of a poet’s soul in its quest after Beauty.

The years 1883 and 1884 were great Keats years. In them there appeared the edition of the poems by the late W.T. Arnold, the first which contained a scholar’s investigations into the special sources of Keats’s poetic style and vocabulary: also the edition for the Golden Treasury Series by Francis Turner Palgrave, with a studiously collated text and a preface of more glowing and scarcely less just critical admiration than Matthew Arnold’s, only flawed, as I think, by a revival of that obsolete heresy of the ‘deadness’ of the Grecian mythology: and thirdly, the first issue of the late Mr Buxton Forman’s edition of the poetry and prose works together. All students know the results of this editor’s devoted and unremitting industry, maintained through a full quarter of a century, in the textual criticism of his author and in the publication and re-publication of editions containing every variant reading and every scrap of scattered prose or verse that could be recovered. To the same worker is due the unearthing and giving to the world of two groups of the poet’s letters which had been unknown to Monckton Milnes, the wholly admirable and delightful series addressed to his young sister, and the series, in great part distressing and deplorable, to Fanny Brawne. About 1887, I was myself able to put straight two matters that needed it by publishing the true text of the letters to America and by rectifying the current notion that the revised Hyperion had been a first draft. Before long came the essay of Mr Robert Bridges, passing the whole of Keats’s poetry under review, and dealing out judgments in a terse authoritative style to which, as one poet estimating another, he was fully entitled, and which at all moments commands interest and respect if it sometimes challenges contradiction. On some matters, and especially on the relations of Keats’s early poetry to Wordsworth, Mr Bridges has thrown a light too clear and convincing to be questioned.

When in 1892 the late Mr William Sharp compiled his Life of Joseph Severn from the vast, almost unmanageable mass of papers in the possession of the artist’s family (I had had them previously through my hands and can realize the difficulty of the task), he furnished valuable new material for our knowledge both of the life of Keats and of his after life in the opinions of men. Coming down to more recent years, we have the admirable editorial work of Professor de Sélincourt, as good, I think, as has been bestowed on any English poet, carrying out to the farthest point the researches initiated by W.T. Arnold, and illuminating the text throughout with the comments and illustrations of a keen scholar in classical and English literature. Nor can I leave unmentioned the several lectures by two successive Oxford professors of poetry, that of Mr A.C. Bradley on Keats’s letters and that of Mr. J.W. Mackail on his poetry. From these two minds, ripened in daily familiarity with the best literatures of the world, we have, after a hundred years, praise of Keats which almost makes Shelley’s seating of him among ‘Inheritors of unfulfilled renown’ seem like an irony,—praise more splendid than he would have hoped for had he lived to fulfil even the most daring of his ambitions. A special point in Mr Mackail’s work is to make clear how strong had been upon Keats the influence of the Divine Comedy, his pocket companion on his Scottish tour, and how in Hyperion, written in the next months after his return, there appears here and there, amid the general Miltonic strain of the verse, a quality of thought and vision drawn straight from and almost matching Dante. Lastly, there has recently come from America a tribute of quite another kind, showing how for purposes of systematic study Keats has been thought worthy of an apparatus hitherto only bestowed on the great classics of literature: I refer to the elaborate and monumental Concordance to his poems lately issued from Cornell University.

And must not, it may be asked, all this labour spent upon Keats’s memory and remains, all this load of editing and re-editing and commentary and biography and scholiast-work laid upon a poet who declared that all poems ought to be understood without any comment,—must it not by this time have fairly smothered, or is it not at least in danger of smothering, Keats himself and his poetry? Naturally in the course of my own work I have asked myself this question with qualms, bethinking myself of Tennyson’s phrase about swamping the sacred poets with themselves. The answer is,—No, such a poet can carry any weight we may choose to lay upon him, and more: he can never be smothered, inasmuch as he has both given the world something it can nevermore cease to want and suggested the existence within him of a power, quenched before its time, to give it something much more and greater yet. If the result of all our commentaries should be to provoke a reaction among readers, and to make them crave for a naked text both of the poems and letters and insist upon being left alone with that and their own meditations upon it,—well, so much the better. Every reader of the English tongue that has the works of Keats often enough in his hands, with or without comment, will find his life enriched with much of the best that poetry can do for human life, with achievements, very near to perfection, of that faculty which is the essential organ of poetry,—to which all others, spiritual and intellectual, are in poetry subordinate,—the faculty of imagination transfusing the vital beauty and magic and secret rhythm of things into the other magic and beauty and rhythm of words. Over and above this, he will find himself living in the familiarity of a great and lovable spirit, dowered at birth with capacities for joy and misery more intense almost than any of which we have record, and retaining its lovableness to the last in spite of circumstances that gave misery too cruelly the upper hand.

But, again the objector may ask, is it so certain that in the coming time the desire of readers for what Keats has to give them will survive without abatement? Have not the last three years been an utterly unprecedented, overwhelming and transforming experience for mankind? Will not the new world after the war be a new world indeed, on the one hand filled, nay, gorged, with recollections of doing and undergoing, of endurance and adventure, of daring and suffering and horror, of hellishness and heroism, beside which all the dreams of bygone romance must forever seem tame and vapid; and on the other hand straining with a hungry forecast towards a future of peace and justice such as mankind has not known before, which it will be its tremendous task to try and establish? Will not this world of so prodigiously intensified experiences and enlarged hopes and besetting anxieties require and produce new poets and a new poetry of its own that shall deal with the realities it has gone through and those it is striving for, and put away and cease to care for the old dreams and thrills and glamours of romance? Have we not in fact witnessed the first-fruits of this new tremendous stimulus in the cloud of young poets who have appeared—too many of them alas! only to perish—since the war began?

And again the answer is, No. However changed the world, work like that of Keats is not what it will ever let perish. The thrills and glamours which pass away are only those of the second-rate and the second-hand sort that come in and go out with literary fashion; not those which have sprung from and struck deep into the innermost places of the spirit. Doubtless there will arise and is arising a new poetry which will be very different from any phase of poetry produced by the romantic revolution and the generations that followed and nourished themselves on it. The new poetry may not be able fully to share Keats’s inspiring conviction of the sovereign, the transcendental truth of whatsoever ideas the imagination seizes as beauty. It may perhaps even abjure the direct search for beauty as its primary aim and impulse. But no matter: provided that its organ be the imagination, working with intensity on whatever themes the genius of the age may dictate, it cannot but achieve some phase, some incarnation, of beauty by the way. But gains like those which were made for the human spirit by the poetry of which Keats was one of the chief masters will never be lost again. Those who care for poetry at all must always care for those refreshing and inspiring draughts, as I have called them, from the innermost wells of antiquity, of nature, and of romance, those meditations of mingled joy and sorrow that search into the soul of things. Moreover they will never cease to interest themselves in the question,—If only this great spirit had survived, what would have been those unwritten poems of which he saw in the sky the cloudy symbols, of which he felt the pressure and prescience forcing the blood into his brain or bringing about his heart an awful warmth ‘like a load of immortality,’ and the perishing of which unborn within him was one of the two great haunting distresses of his dying days?

In letting speculation wander in this field, we are brought up by many problems as to what kind of manhood could have followed a youth like that of Keats, had he had better fortune and had the conditions and accidents of his life been such as to fortify his bodily constitution instead of sapping it. Youth, especially half-trained youth, is always subject to such storms and strains as those which Keats experienced with a violence proportionate to the fervour of his being. To the sane and sweet, the manly and courageous, elements in his character we have found his friends bear unanimous evidence, amply supported by the self-revelation of his letters. But self-revealed also we see the morbid, the corroding elements which lay beneath these, just as beneath his vigorous frame and gallant bearing there lay the bodily susceptibilities that with ill-luck enabled lung disease to fasten on and kill him. What must under any conditions have made life hard for him was the habitual inner contention and disquiet of his instincts and emotions in regard to that most momentous of human matters, love. When he lets his mind dwell on the opposed extremes of human impulse and experience, from the vilest to the most exalted, which the word-of-all-work, love, is used to cover, he is more savagely perplexed and out of conceit with life than from any other cause or thought whatever.(12) The ruling power in himself, as he declares over and over again, was the abstract passion for beauty, the love of the principle of beauty in all things. But even in the poem specially designed to embody and celebrate that passion, in Endymion, we find his conception of realized and sexual human love to be mawkish and unworthy. When the actual experience befalls himself, he falls utterly and almost ignominiously a slave, at once enraptured and desperately resentful, to the jealous cravings which absorb and paralyse all his other faculties. Would ripened manhood or a happier experience have been able to bring health and peace to his spirit on this supremely vital matter and to turn him into a poet of love, love both human and transcendental, such as at the outset he had longed and striven to be?

Again, along with his admirable capacity for loyal devotion and sympathy in friendship, we find in him capacities of quite another kind, capacities for disillusionment and for seeing through and chafing at human and social shams and pretensions and absurdities; and we ask ourselves, would this strain in him, which we find expressed with a degree of pettish and premature cynicism, for instance in the Cap and Bells and in some of his later letters, have matured with time into a power either of virile satire or genial, reconciling comedy?

And once more, would that haunting, that irrepressible sense of the miseries of the world which we find breaking through from time to time amid the beauty of the odes, or the playfulness and affectionate confidences of the letters, or dictating that tragical return against himself and his achievements in the revisedHyperion,—could it and would it with experience have mellowed into such compassionate wisdom as might have made him one of the rare great healers and sages among the poets of the world?

Such speculations are as vain as they are inevitable. Let us indulge ourselves at any rate by remembering that it is the greatest among his successors who have held the most sanguine view as to the powers that were in him. Here are more words of Tennyson’s,—‘Keats, with his high spiritual vision, would have been, if he had lived, the greatest of us. There is something magic and of the innermost soul of poetry in almost everything which he wrote.’ Leaving with these words the question of what he might have done, and looking only at what he did, it is enough for any man’s glory. The days of the years of his life were few and evil, but above his grave the double aureole of poetry and friendship shines eternally.


(1) Everyone knows Wordsworth’s beautiful sonnet of God-speed to him. Haydon went to call on the great man, who had always been kind to him, as he passed through London, and except for two unfortunately chosen words, is at his very best in this picture of their parting:—‘After a quarter of an hour I took my leave, and as I arose he got up, took his stick, with that sidelong look of his, and then burst forth that beautiful smile of heart and feeling, geniality of soul, manly courage and tenderness of mien, which neither painter nor sculptor has ever touched. It was the smile of a superior creature who would have gathered humanity under the shelter of its wings and while he was amused at its follies would have saved it from sorrow and sheltered it from pain.’ (Life of B. R. Haydon, ed. Taylor, ii, 321.)

(2) John Sterling, Essays and Tales, ii, 53.

(3) Carefully edited, it is believed by Cyrus Redding, formerly an employé of the house.

(4) Noctes Ambrosianæ, ii, 146: from Blackwood for December, 1828.

(5) Quarterly Review, April 1833, page 81. The article was long supposed to be by Lockhart himself, but Mr Prothero has proved that it was by Croker.

(6) In W. Smith’s Standard Library, exactly reprinted from the Galignani edition. America had in this matter been in advance of England, an edition of the poet’s works having appeared at Buffalo in 1834.

(7) Essays and Tales, p. clxviii.

(8) Notes on Gilfillan’s Literary Portraits: Collected Works, xi, 393. It is fair to add that twelve years later De Quincey went a good way in recantation of this outburst.

(9) See Byron’s Collected Works, Prose, iii, 46, note.

(10) See particularly Chaps. iv and v of Holman Hunt’s Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

(11) First published in T.H. Ward’s Selections from the English poets, and re-printed in the second series of Essays in Criticism (1892). To this essay I possess a curious postscript in a note of Arnold’s written a few years later to myself. I had thought his treatment of Endymion too slighting. His answer shows how fastidiousness could prevail in him over judgment. ‘If Keats,’ he writes, ‘had left nothing but Endymion, it would have alone shown his remarkable power and have been worth preserving on that account: but when he has left plenty which shows it much better I cannot but wish Endymion away from his volume.’

(12) See the bitter comment on a passage in Burton’s Anatomy quoted in Mr Buxton Forman’s Complete Works of J. K. iii, 268, where Keats runs his head against the problem with which Plato had tried to deal in his myth of the two Aphrodites, Pandêmos and Urania. ‘The word-of-all-work, love,’ is a phrase of George Eliot’s.

 

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