Print this Post

PREFACE (About John Keats by Sidney Colvin)

To the name and work of Keats our best critics and scholars have in
recent years paid ever closer attention and warmer homage. But their
studies have for the most part been specialized and scattered, and there
does not yet exist any one book giving a full and connected account of
his life and poetry together in the light of our present knowledge and
with help of all the available material. Ever since it was my part, some
thirty years ago, to contribute the volume on Keats to the series of
short studies edited by Lord Morley, (the _English Men of Letters_
series), I have hoped one day to return to the subject and do my best to
supply this want. Once released from official duties, I began to prepare
for the task, and through the last soul-shaking years, being over age
for any effectual war-service, have found solace and occupation in
carrying it through.
The following pages, timed to appear in the hundredth year after the
publication of Keats’s first volume, are the result. I have sought in
them to combine two aims not always easy to be reconciled, those of
holding the interest of the general reader and at the same time of
satisfying, and perhaps on some points even informing, the special
student. I have tried to set forth consecutively and fully the history
of a life outwardly remarkable for nothing but its tragic brevity, but
inwardly as crowded with imaginative and emotional experience as any on
record, and moreover, owing to the open-heartedness of the man and to
the preservation and unreserved publication of his letters, lying bare
almost more than any other to our knowledge. Further, considering for
how much friendship counted in Keats’s life, I have tried to call up the
group of his friends about him in their human lineaments and relations,
so far as these can be recovered, more fully than has been attempted
before. I believe also that I have been able to trace more closely than
has yet been done some of the chief sources, both in literature and in
works of art, of his inspiration. I have endeavoured at the same time to
make felt the critical and poetical atmosphere, with its various and
strongly conflicting currents, amid which he lived, and to show how his
genius, almost ignored in its own day beyond the circle of his private
friends, was a focus in which many vital streams of poetic tendency from
the past centred and from which many radiated into the future. To
illustrate this last point it has been necessary, by way of epilogue, to
sketch, however briefly, the story of his posthumous fame, his after
life in the minds and hearts of English writers and readers until
to-day. By English I mean all those whose mother language is English. To
follow the extension of Keats’s fame to the Continent is outside my aim.
He has not yet, by means of translation and comment in foreign
languages, become in any full sense a world-poet. But during the last
thirty years the process has begun, and there would be a good deal to
say, did my scheme admit it, of work upon Keats done abroad, especially
in France, where our literature has during the last generation been
studied with such admirable intelligence and care.
In an attempt of this scope, I have necessarily had to repeat matters of
common knowledge and to say again things that others have said well and
sufficiently already. But working from materials hitherto in part
untouched, and taking notice of such new lights as have appeared while
my task was in progress, I have drawn from them some conclusions, both
biographical and critical, which I believe to be my own and which I hope
may stand. I have not shrunk from quoting in full poems and portions of
poems which everybody knows, in cases where I wanted the reader to have
their text not merely in memory but actually before him, for re-studying
with a fresh comment or in some new connexion. I have also quoted very
largely from the poet’s letters, even now not nearly as much read as
things so full of genius should be, both in order that some of his story
may be told in his own words and for the sake of that part of his
mind–a great and most interesting part–which is expressed in them but
has not found its way into his poems. It must be added that when I found
things in my former small book which I did not see my way to better and
which seemed to fit into the expanded scale of this one, I have not
hesitated sometimes to incorporate them–to the amount perhaps of forty
or fifty pages in all.
I wish I could hope that my work will be found such as to justify the
amount and variety of friendly help I have had in its preparation.
Thanks for such help are due in more quarters than I can well call to
mind. First and foremost, to Lord Crewe for letting me have free and
constant access to his unrivalled collection of original documents
connected with the subject, both those inherited from his father
(referred to in the notes as ‘Houghton MSS.’) and those acquired in
recent years by himself (referred to as ‘Crewe MSS.’). Speaking
generally, it may be assumed that new matter for which no authority is
quoted is taken from these sources. To Miss Henrietta Woodhouse of
Weston Lea, Albury, I am indebted for valuable documentary and other
information concerning her uncle Richard Woodhouse. Next in importance
among collections of Keats documents to that of Lord Crewe is that of Mr
J. P. Morgan in New York, the chief contents of which have by his leave
been transcribed for me with the kindliest diligence by his librarian
Miss Greene. For other illustrative documents existing in America, I
believe of value, I should like to be able to thank their owners, Mr Day
and Mr Louis Holman of Boston: but these gentlemen made a condition of
their help the issue of a limited edition _de luxe_ of the book
specially illustrated from their material, a condition the publishers
judged it impossible to carry out, at any rate in war-time.
Foremost among my scholarly helpers at home has been my friend Professor
W. P. Ker. For information and suggestions in answer to enquiries of one
kind or another I am indebted to Professor Israel Gollancz and Mr Henry
Bradley; to Professor Ernest Weekley, the best living authority on
surnames; to Mr A. H. Bullen; to Mr Falconer Madan and Mr J. W. Mackail;
to Mr Thomas J. Wise; to Mr H. C. Shelley; to Mr J. D. Milner, Director
of the National Portrait Gallery; and to my former colleague Mr A. H.
Smith, Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum. Mr
George Whale supplied me with full copies of and comments on the entries
concerning Keats in the books of Guy’s Hospital. Dr Hambley Rowe of
Bradford put at my disposal the results, unfortunately not yet
conclusive, of the researches made by him as a zealous Cornishman on
Keats’s possible Cornish descent. I must not omit thanks to Mr Emery
Walker for his skill and pains in preparing the illustrations for my
book. With reference to these, I may note that the head from the
portrait painted by Severn in 1859 and now in Lord Crewe’s possession
was chosen for colour reproduction as frontispiece because it is the
fullest in colouring and, though done from memory so long after the
poet’s death, to my mind the most satisfying and convincing in general
air of any of the extant portraits. Of the miniature done by Severn from
life in 1818, copied and recopied by himself, Charles Brown and others,
and made familiar by numberless reproductions in black and white, the
original, now deposited by the Dilke Trustees in the National Portrait
Gallery, has the character of a monochrome touched with sharp notes or
suggestions of colour in the hair, lips, hands, book, etc. I have
preferred not to repeat either this or the equally well known–nay,
hackneyed–and very distressing death-bed drawing made by Severn at
Rome. The profile from Haydon’s life-mask of the poet is taken, not,
like most versions of the same mask, from the plaster, but from an
electrotype made many years ago when the cast was fresh and showing the
structure and modellings of the head more subtly, in my judgment, than
the original cast itself in its present state. Both cast and electrotype
are in the National Portrait Gallery. So is the oil-painting of Keats
seated reading, begun by Severn soon after the poet’s death and finished
apparently two years later, which I have reproduced, well known though
it is, partly for its appositeness to a phrase in one of his letters to
his sister. Besides the portraits of Keats, I have added from
characteristic sources those of the two men who most influenced him at
the outset of his career, Leigh Hunt and Haydon. A new feature in my
book is provided by the reproductions of certain works of art, both
pictures and antiques, which can be proved or surmised to have struck
and stimulated his imagination. The reproductions of autographs, one of
his own and one of Haydon’s, speak for themselves.

Permanent link to this article: http://keats-poems.com/preface-about-john-keats-by-sidney-colvin/