Essays and Reviews

by Archibald Lampman

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley


The Character and Poetry of Keats


There are two sayings of John Keats, which have passed upon all men’s tongues, and made their way into the inner treasury of the English language. They have become proverbial. One is the first line of Endymion "A thing of Beauty is a joy forever" and the other the two last lines of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn";

Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty,—that is all
Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know[.]

When Keats used this word Beauty he meant it in that clear and lofty sense, which is not always attached to the term. Beauty is often loosely spoken of, as if it were merely a single word for artistic perfection. But a thing may be perfectly genuine art without being beautiful at all and without being true. We know how much poetry of a very fervid sort has been written within the last quarter of a century, which is quite splendid from the point of view of art, and thoroughly satisfactory to the devotees of art for art‘s sake, yet is entirely unlovely in the white light of Beauty and Truth. Such poetry disturbs. It is of the darkness of doubt, of that darkest doubt of all, which has lost confidence in the existence or the possibility of purity and self-sacrifice. But Beauty cannot disturb. It enobles the heart, lifting it into an atmosphere of golden quietude and the purest human loveliness. Keats might also have said that Beauty was Goodness as well as Truth, and then the aphorism would have been complete, for that which is beautiful and true in this lofty sense must also be good.

So perfect a confidence have I myself in this profound utterance of the poet that it is for me the complete answer to those mechanical realists, who find no merit in many of our elder writers, because they sought the ground-work of their creations in a region of apparent unreality—to Carlisle [sic] for instance, when he roughly pointed out Alfred Tennyson as one "sitting upon a dung-hill, surrounded by innumerable dead dogs." It is a shallow view of the duty of the poet. All that should be required of him is that his work be beautiful—beautiful in that high sense of which we have spoken; and then whatever characters or scenes he may clothe with the softness or the majesty of his verse will be perfectly true to us; whether we have ever met with them upon earth or not. Whatever creation of the human imagination is genuinely beautiful is produced by an impulse derived from and allied to the power of the Divine Creator himself, and it has the right to exist. There is an energy in the spirit of the true poet, which realizes what he creates, and if his spirit be in harmony with the indestructible impulse of the general soul of humanity toward love and knowledge and peace, makes it beautiful and true and good, but if he be waywardly out of harmony with that universal impulse, makes it, however forceable the conception, false and unfair and bad.

In the beginning of the nineteenth century this human spirit of Beauty was no new thing, but to no one up to that time had it revealed itself with such radiant fulness of revelation as to Keats; and he for the first time enveloped the images of poetry, and the representations of nature and human life, in that April sunshine of loveliness, which passed on from him as an inheritance to Tennyson and Browning and the poets who are now living. That which had only been an intermittent fire in the elder poets, became an abiding glow in the genius of Keats. In the first of our poets, Chaucer, "One morning star of Song" the note is present. Every reader of Chaucer carries in his heart the exquisite remembrance of many lines and couplets, in which are mentioned, in an accent of joyous tenderness, the flowers, or the birds, or the rain. In Shakespeare, who comprehended all things within his mighty soul, the quality which in our time we think of as the quality of Keats, meets us in a multitude of passages:

When in the chronicles of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
And Beauty making beautiful old rhyme
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,
Then in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best,
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their antique pen would have expressed
Even such a beauty as you master now.

This is the language of Beauty, and it is like the language of Keats. Keats is the only poet of later time, who approached Shakespeare in that faculty of liquid and appealing eloquence, that perfect naturalness of passionate poetic utterance, which fits the thought as with a transparent and at the same time closely clinging garment. That is why I cannot help thinking, as Monc[k]ton Milnes thought, that, if Keats had lived and deepened his experience, he would have developed an uncommon aptitude for the drama.

But the beauty of Keats[’] earlier imaginings reminds us perhaps not so much of Shakespeare as of some of his contemporaries. He was enchanted from the first with the spirit of the Elizabethan pastoral; and he not only caught perfectly, but carried to the highest possible pitch in Endymion the grace and freshness and ideal charm of the sort of poetry best exemplified in passages of the Forsaken Shepherdess of Beaumont and Fletcher, and the Sad Shepherd of Ben Jonson. These pastorals and the Fairie [sic] Queen [sic] of Edmund Spencer [sic] were the sources from which he first drew his inspiration.

The study of Milton too assisted considerably in strengthening our poet’s passion for beauty, and somewhat in developing the quality of his later diction. It seems quite natural that the Comus and Lycidas, "L’Allegro," "Il Penseroso" and the sonnets were the first of Milton’s poems to appeal to him. He was very early attracted by their large and classic beauty—that beauty so noble and so staid, which came in the beginning upon the field of English verse like his own figure of morning "with pilgrim footsteps clad in amice grey." It was not however until the third year of his life as a poet that he applied himself to the study of Paradise Lost, and the result is the apparent in the massive movement of many of the passages in Hyperion.

The strongest other influences which affected the poetry of Keats were the political and literary atmosphere of his own age, the introduction to classic mythology, which his imagination siezed upon with the swiftness and certainty of natural affinity, and the sufferings of mind and body into which he had fallen, when his last and finest works were written.

Keats was born shortly after the close of that long intermediary period, during which English poetry had passed through successive stages of artificiallity, until it had reached the point at which either rebellion or collapse was imminent. We all know how the general impetus given by the rise of the new ideas in Europe threw the decision in favour of rebellion, and already the early captains of that rebellion[,] Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Scott, Byron, and Hunt, had appeared.

It was an age of romantic upheaval and spiritual awakening, such as had not been known since the days of Elizabeth. At a distance of eighty or ninety years, we can hardly present to ourselves any adequate conception of the gorgeous images that floated before the imaginations of the young poets and artists of that day. They were like youthful Titans casting off from themselves magnificently the sordid conventions, false rules and fettering theories forged in the growth of two benighted centuries. They trod the earth like gods, and their foreheads touched the stars. It is the prime glory of the poetry of Shelley that it has given us the fullest expression of that wild and promethean spirit. Already in 1830 and 1840, when Tennyson and Browning came, this golden effervescence had nearly passed away, and men were settling down to the long task of sifting the chaotic ideas of their predecessors, and perfecting what there was in them of true and permanent through the application of clear and happy intelligence and devoted art. With them was the full light of mid-day and the quiet ardor of workmanship; with the earlier poets it was the dawning and the dream.

Keats did not enter into the social and political side of this revolutionary spirit as Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge did, for he was neither scientist, philosopher nor politician, but the poet pure and simple. Nevertheless the spirit bore abundant fruit in him in the fresh and defiant splendor of his imagination and the joyous and daring confidence with which he set aside the most firmly rooted poetic traditions of his day.

In the year 1812, when he was seventeen years of age, Keats, then an apprentice to a surgeon at Edmonton, near London, borrowed from his friend Charles Cowden Clarke a copy of Spencer’s [sic] Fairie [sic] Queen [sic]. He had not hitherto given any direct evidence of a tendency to poetry. His school companions had looked upon him as one destined to greatness, but in the unusual vigor and pugnacity of his disposition they saw the promise of an active rather than a literary future. The reading of the Fairie [sic] Queen [sic] was the fructifying influence, which brought to light the latent bent of his genius. His imagination was enchanted with the varied and elaborate imagery and inexhaustible invention of Spencer’s [sic] poems; for it was toward these things that his own natural effort at first directed itself. He began at once to write verses, and the passion for poetry grew upon him until in the beginning of 1817, five years later, he cast aside his medical studies altogether, and turned to letters as a sole pursuit.

Already in the previous year he had met Leigh Hunt, and become intimate with that company of young poets and artists, who were supposed to be gathered about Hunt as a leader. The influence of this companionship has left many marks upon the versification of the poems of his first volume and the earlier books of Endymion. It was evident in a certain sentimentally vivacious familiarity of tone, peculiar to the poetry of Hunt, and not always quite in harmony with the frequent firmer touches, which already gave proof of a keen native impulse.

The two friends wandered about among the fields and hedgerows of Hampstead, feeding upon the changeful summer loveliness of earth and water and cloud, the intense susceptibility to which was at the root of Keats’ overbubbling love of beauty. He had at first written verses flavorless and imitative as the first efforts of young poets are apt to be, but it was not long before the imperious natural note began to assert itself, gathering greater and greater strength from the encouragement and active sympathy of his new-found friends.

In 1815 in his twentieth year the "Epistle to George Felton Matthew [sic]" was written—verses crude enough, but revealing for the first time the emerging individual accent of a new poetry[.] In this and the succeeding Epistles we have the young poet’s developing consciousness laid bare—the groping after the poetic life, the yearning, the asperation, the alternating moods of alluring hope and shrinking despondency, till in the last poem, "Sleep and Poetry", the clear bold note is rung, the die is cast, the dreamer believes that the god’s gift is upon him, and he fares forth bravely to make trial of his destiny. In the second Epistle of a year later we find a somewhat warmer power flowing through the versification, an easier touch, a freer fancy, and in particular some noteable lines. It opens with the same questioning despondency, which forms the background of every luminous picture of the glory of poetry in these yearning tentative first efforts; but nevertheless the poet draws comfort and hope from those operations of his own mind, which he cannot but feel are allied to something unusual and divine:

At times ’tis true I’ve felt relief from pain
When some bright thought has darted through my brain:
Through all that day I’ve felt a greater pleasure
Than if I’d brought to light a hidden treasure[.]

It was this wide-sighted self-distrust, buoyed up by irrepressible impulse, which accounts for the enormous strides toward maturity of imagination and technical power, which Keats made within three years after the publication of his first book. This searching and insatiable self-criticism—the surest indication of greatness in an artist—forbad him rest in any achievement, and continually nerved him to a firmer and wider expansion of his gift.

The third epistle to his friend Charles Cowden Clarke was written about a month later than the foregoing one. It opens with the same doubting touch. He declares that he had not addressed his friend before in verse, for the reason that he could not think of any of his rhymes as worthy of his reading. He confesses that it was he who first taught him all the "Sweets of Song", and then we come upon those famous lines descriptive of the various kinds of verse:

Spencerian vowels that elope with ease,
And float along like birds o’er summer seas;
Miltonian storms, and more, Miltonian tenderness;
Michael in arms, and more, meek Eve’s fair slenderness.
Who read for me the sonnet swelling loudly
Up to its climax, and then dying proudly?
Who found for me the grandeur of the ode,
Growing, like Atlas, stronger from its load?
Who let me taste that more than cordial dram,
The sharp, the rapier pointed, epigram?
Showed me that epic was of all the king,
Round, vast, and spanning all like Saturn’s ring?

We realize, almost with a start, upon reading these lines to what a height the young poet had already attained in sureness of insight, breadth of imagination, and concinnity of expression.

The poem of so many beauties with which this volume begins, "I stood tiptoe upon a little hill," must have been written after the epistles. It is full of spring like harbingers of the summer luxuriance to come. Opening in boyant and delicious surrenderment to every yielded beauty of field and stream, the poet soon slips into the old mood of dreaming—in these verses happy dreaming—over the joys and significance of poetry. He ends by touching two of the subjects afterwards treated in his greater verse—the stories of Psyche and Endymion—thus affording another example of the tendency of every strong creative imagination to lay hold of certain ideas in which it finds an instinctive affinity, and retain them in growth and fermentation till they have become so completely a part of its natural life as to flow authoritatively and without effort into expression. This poem contains some of Keats’ liveliest and most beautiful descriptive lines, as for instance:

Here are sweet peas on tiptoe for a flight:
With wings of gentle flush oer delicate white,
And taper fingers catching at all things,
To bind them all above with tiny rings.

Even where the versification is still crude and boyish, there is a most gladsome tenderness and brightness of fancy that makes these verses precious to every poetic ear. In the following lines Keats gives the first beautiful example of that exquisite sense, which he above all others bred into English poetry, of the convertibility of all kinds of ideas into terms of the subtlest impressions gathered from field and forest and sky and sea:

In the calm grandeur of a sober line
We see the waving of a mountain pine;
And when a tale is beautifully staid,
We feel the safety of a hawthorn glade.

Keats never touched the classic mythology without breaking into a richer vein of versification. Although he knew nothing of Greek and very little of Latin, he had managed through the study of the most ordinary compendiums of mythology, and by the sheer force of his vital and unerring sense of beauty, to people his imagination with the moving and breathing figures of the ancient religion, rekindling in his own genius all the charm and poetry of the life of antiquity. What more simply lovely could there be than these lines, describing the beneficent influences of Cynthia’s bridal night:—

The evening weather was so bright and clear,
That men of health were of unusual cheer;
Stepping like Homer at the trumpet’s call,
Or young Apollo on the pedestal;
And lovely women were as fair and warm
As Venus looking sideways in alarm;
The breezes were etherial and pure,
And crept through half-closed lattices to cure
The languid sick; it cooled their fevered sleep
And soothed them into slumbers full and deep.
Soon they awoke clear-eyed, nor burnt with thirsting
Nor with hot fingers, nor with temples bursting,
And springing up, they met the wondering sight
Of their dear friends, nigh foolish with delight,
Who feel their arms and breasts, and kiss and stare,
And on the placid forehead part the hair.
Young men and maidens at each other gazed,
With arms held back, and motionless, amazed,
To see the brightness in each others’ eyes;
And so they stood filled with a sweet surprise,
Until their tongues were loosed in poesy:
Therefore no lover did of anguish die,
But the soft numbers, in that moment spoken,
Made silken ties, that never may be broken.

These lines are equal in quiet picturesque sweetness to anything in Endymion.

When we have read "Sleep and Poetry", we leave our poet’s apprentice volume with the first immortal trumpet-note, the first assured prophesy ringing in our ears. This poem is his profession of faith and declaration of rights. Though not yet altogether without doubt, he bravely assumes the part of the poet, and cheerily flings the singing robes about him:

If I do hide myself, it sure shall be
In the very fane, the light, of poesy:
If I do fall, at least I shall be laid
Beneath the silence of a poplar shade;
And over me the grass shall be smoothe-shaven,
And there will be a kind, memorial graven[.]

                                  Though I do not know
The shiftings of the mighty winds that blow
Hither and thither all the changing thoughts
Of man: though no great ministering reason sorts
Out the dark mysteries of human souls
So clear conceiving: yet there ever rolls
A vast idea before me, and I glean
Therefrom my liberty; thence too I’ve seen
The end and aim of poesy[.]

That "vast idea" was and illimitable world of Beauty, which at that time no doubt he rather felt as a presence near and large and luminous than saw as a plan carried out in any distinctness of detail before him. And yet he had a sort of picture, hopeful and magnificent, of the onward movement of his life-work, expanding from stage to stage:—

                              First the realm I’ll pass
Of Flora and old Pan; sleep in the grass,
Feed upon apples red, and strawberries,
And choose each pleasure that my fancy sees[.]


     Can I ever bid these joys farewell?
Yes, I must pass them for a nobler life,
Where I may find the agonies, the strife
Of human hearts[.]

Then comes that glittering vision of poetry as a charrioteer [sic], "who looks out upon the winds with glorious fear". The poet looks back with reverence and passionate regret to the age of the early poets, and questions of his own:—

                                         Is there so small a range
In the present strength of manhood that the high
Imagination cannot freely fly
As she was wont of old?

He wonders what madness could have fallen on the intermediate times that all the elder glories should have been forgotten:

                                     Ah, dismal souled!
The winds of heaven blew, the ocean rolled
Its gathering waves—ye felt it not. The blue
Bared its eternal bosom, and the dew
Of summer nights collected still to make
The morning precious; Beauty was awake;
Why were ye not awake?

Then he returns to the hope, the rising and gathering hope, of his own generation:

Now tis a fairer season; ye have breathed
Rich benedictions oer us; ye have wreathed
Fresh garlands; for sweet music has been heard
In many places.…
…Fine sounds are floating wild
About the earth; happy are ye, and glad.

Then he states in most beautiful phrase his idea of the true mission of poetry. He thinks that the newly awakened sweetness of song had been often misapplied, had been made the servant not of Beauty, but rather of a superhuman despair and terror, and no doubt in the following lines he has Byron partly in view:—

                                     Yet in truth we’ve had
Strange thunders from the potency of song;
Mingled indeed with what is sweet and strong
From majesty; but in clear truth the themes
Are ugly cubs, the poet’s polyphemes,
Disturbing the grand sea.

Then follow the lines:—

                                        A drainless shower
Of light is poesy; ’tis the supreme power;
Tis might half-slumbering on its own right arm.
The very archings of her eye-lids charm
A thousand willing agents to obey,
And still she governs with the mildest sway:
But strength alone, though of the muses born,
Is like a fallen Angel; trees uptorn,
Darkness, and worms, and shrouds, and sepulchres
Delight it; for it feeds upon the burrs
And thorns of life; forgetting the great end
Of poesy, that it should be a friend
To soothe the cares, and lift the thoughts of man[.]

Once more in the same poem he says:—

          They shall be accounted poet kings,
Who simply tell the most heart-easing things

This was the doctrine of poetry, which Keats professed and followed in his own writing. This was the prompting of that spirit of Beauty, which he was gathering[,] deepening and purifying from the elder poets, and which he would exalt almost into a new evangel in the worship of verse. He had no sympathy with the art, which aims only to excite, which searches the wild and waste places of life for its material, dealing in the strange and the abnormal, and laying bare the nakedness of passion. He considered all this an unhappy misapplication of the sacred gift, which was intended to relieve the sordid gloom of human existence, by accustoming the minds of men to the most exquisite sensations, and filling them with the noblest and most beautiful images. He did not love poetry only in and for itself, but because there was a sacred and eternal use in poetry. For him poetry was a living spirit, whose influence was too wide a thing to be degraded to an instrument for delineating insanities and eccentricities. It should be clear, spontaneous, and inevitable as the movement of the universe itself. It should only deal with such things as in their essences should accord with that divine and universal harmony. "Poetry", he says in one of his letters, "should be great and unobtrusive, a thing, which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle or amaze it with itself, but with its subject. How beautiful are the retired flowers. How would they lose their beauty, were they to throng into the highway, crying out, ‘Admire me, I am a violet!’ ‘Dote upon me. I am a primrose!’"

The other noteworthy contents of the first volume were the sonnets and the beautiful lines beginning, "Hadst thou lived in days of old," composed in that short tripping measure in couplets, which Milton was fond of using, holding it in such sober and stately control. In Keats’ hands it is freed from some of its trammels, and assumes a swifter spritelier grace. This poem and the fine sonnet, "Nymph of the downward smile and sidelong glance", were addressed to a lady, who afterwards became the wife of his brother George, and whom the poet also admired for a certain singular and unconventional beauty and impulsive candor of spirit, which she possessed. When George Keats and his wife afterwards settled in America, some of John’s wittiest and wisest letters were addressed to her.

Of the other sonnets only four are of remarkable excellence, and of these the one, "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer", is the most famous. It is indeed one of the finest of English sonnets, and the irresistible beauty and unexpectedness of the image with which it closes must have borne for its first readers the very signmark of a fresh and undoubted genius. The sonnet, "To my Brother George", contains the lines very simply and nobly suggestive:—

The ocean with its vastness, its blue green,
     Its ships, its rocks, its caves, its hopes, its fears,
     Its voice mysterious, which who so hears,
Must think on what will be, and what has been[.]

The one beginning "Keen fitful gusts are whispering here and there," an exquisite piece of romantic gladness and grace, was composed one wintry night, as he returned homeward from a congenial gathering at Leigh Hunt’s house, where the talk had no doubt been of the usual exuberant and inspiriting kind. The sonnets addressed to Haydon are a record of his friendship, at one time intense, and never wholly relinquished, with one of the most singular and unfortunate men of that time—unfortunate indeed, if we consider that there is no destiny more bitter and tragical than that of the man who has all the unconquerable aspirations of genius, but lacks some of the subtler gifts which are essential to creative success. The members of the Hunt circle would frequently meet in Haydon’s studio, and criticise and talk on every imaginable subject, while the painter worked at his easel. It was in memorial of one of these meetings that Keats wrote the sonnet, "Great spirits now on earth are sojourning", an enthusiastic tribute to Wordsworth, Hunt and Haydon. Keats always expressed profound admiration of Wordsworth, but at this time the feeling was unmarred by a certain irritating effect of personal contact which undoubtedly influenced some of his expressions in regard to the elder poet a year or two later. Both writers were bound up in poetry, but their poetical creeds ran too far counter to each other to have enabled them ever to enter into sympathetic companionship. Keats was a spirit after Matthew Arnold’s heart, a man who preferred to maintain a perfect flexibility of intelligence, keeping his mind open to all impressions. He abhorred dogma, and resented every attempt to confine him within the bounds of any creed, philosophy or formula whatsoever. We know that the root of all Wordsworth‘s later work was his peculiar philosophy of life, and that everything, not adaptible [sic] to this philosophy, he regarded with at least cold indifference. Keats himself states his complaint against Wordsworth in a letter to his friend Reynolds, written early in 1818: "But[,]" he says, "for the sake of a few fine imaginative and domestic passages, are we to be bullied into a certain philosophy, engendered in the whims of an egotist. Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false courage and deceives himself—we hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us, and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket." "Modern poets", he says in the same letter, "differ from the Elizabethans in this: each of the moderns, like an Elector of Hanover, governs his own petty state, and knows how many straws are swept daily from the causeways in all his dominions, and has a continual itching that all the housewives should have their coppers well scoured. The ancients were emperors of vast provinces; they had only heard of the remote ones, and scarcely cared to visit them[.]"

This impatience at fixed ideas, and anything like intellectual control, led to a certain cooling in the friendship between Keats and Hunt at a later period, and I have no doubt that it accounts in great part for the fact that Keats never entered into any intimacy with Shelley, although abundant opportunity was thrown in his way. Shelley also had his fixed idea, a theory of life, which was not so much a philosophy as a fanaticism, and he preached it with all the importunate zeal of a religious propagandist. I can imagine that Keats carefully fought shy of such a man, and would have done much to avoid very frequent contact with him. The fact is that in the character of Keats there was a basis of sweet honest common sense, and an intense susceptibility to all the tender affections and sympathies of ordinary life, which bred in him a repulsion to things wild[,] irregular and abnormal. Shelley, with all his aspiring imagination, benevolent activities and visionary fervours, was an egotist—a magnificent one, if you will—yet still an egotist. He was capable of forgetting that in the struggle for our own spiritual emancipation, we have no right to risk the ruin of any other human soul. Shelley’s was a humanity which did not show well under the common and necessary tests.

But to return to Keats’ first volume, all through these poems, whether in the sonnets or the longer pieces, whatever failures or imperfections there may be, and whatever boyish crudities of expression, there is everywhere a beautiful vivacity, a sense of an overbubbling ecstasy of enjoyment, which renders this book as a first product interesting and unique. How was it that Keats, a half-educated lad, the son of a stable-keeper in the crowded city of London, possessed this special freshness of perception, this glowing and quivering susceptibility to every natural beauty. No doubt in the first place through some subtle blending of blood and spirit, rarely repeated, he was born with an exquisite genius for poetry, but I am inclined to suspect that he owed the singular freshness of his gift partly to the very fact of his having been brought up amidst the most artificial and prosaic surroundings. He owed something to the effect of contrast. When he at length burst into the world of poetry, made the acquaintance of witty and brilliant men, and found the liberty of earth and sea before his feet, the glorious newness of the life opening to him lifted his spirit to a joyous pitch of inspiration which he would not have known, had he been bred among tranquil country scenes or educated at the Universities in early contact with ability and culture.

Early in 1817 Keats finally resolved to give up the study of medicine, although he had passed his examination with credit, and had performed with perfect success all the surgical operations assigned to him in the hospitals. His dexterity, he said, appeared to him a miracle, and being a man of that transparent honesty, which is characteristic of the highest order of genius, he felt that he dared not assume the responsibility of practising in a profession, affecting the lives and happiness of others, when he was unable to devote to it the best energies of mind and heart. He preferred to take his stand bravely upon the basis of what he now actually knew himself to be. Moreover this course was in accordance with all the longing of his soul; "I find I cannot exist without poetry," he writes to Reynolds, "without eternal poetry—I began with a little, but habit has made me a leviathan".

No sooner had he abandoned medicine than he felt that he must justify the act by the production of some important work in verse. Moreover he wished to test his own power, and to prove to himself whether, or not, he were capable of that sustained effort which he considered to be the criterion of poetic greatness. "A long poem", he says to Bailey, "is a test of invention, which I take to be the polar star of poetry, as fancy is the sails, and imagination the rudder". He had already brooded long upon his project of Endymion, and he now determined to carry it out. Yet he was not without wholesome misgiving. "There is no greater sin" he says "after the seven deadly than to flatter oneself with the idea of being a great poet, or one of those beings, who are privileged to wear out their lives in the pursuit of honour. How comfortable a thing it is to feel that such a crime must bring a heavy penalty, that if one be a self-deluder, accounts must be balanced."

However in April 1817, following the advice of Haydon, he went off to the Isle of Wight, in order that he might be alone to study, and write and mature his plans. He moved about from place to place during the summer and autumn, toiling more or less assiduously at Endymion. The poem was begun at Caris-brooke [sic] in April, and finished, as the still existing manuscript tells us, on the 28th of November at Burford Bridge.

Endymion, if too immature to be one of the very few greatest, is at least one of the most interesting of English poems. It is interesting not only for its beauty, and the profusion of imaginative riches expended upon it, but also as a study of Keats’ extraordinarily rapid developement, and of the final tentative stage, through which he attained at once that royal mastery of versification apparent in all his subsequent pieces. It is also interesting as being without doubt in a certain general sense an allegory. In this exquisite story of the love of the shepherd prince Endymion for the Moon-Goddess, and the troublous wanderings in earth and sea and air, through which he was perfected and purified for union with an immortal, the poet vaguely intended to figure the search of his own soul after the spirit of Beauty, or the spirit of Poetry—a consummation which meant for him— happiness. The pith and kernel of the meaning of the poem is in these lines:—

"Wherein lies happiness? In that which becks
Our ready minds to fellowship divine,
A fellowship with essence; till we shine,
Full alchemized and free of space. Behold
The clear religion of heaven!"

Viewed in particular how many incomparably lovely things there are in this hastily written and imperfectly connected romance. With what happy suggestions he announces the plan of his labours:

                                       So I will begin,
Now while I cannot hear the city’s din:
Now while the early budders are just new,
And run in mazes of the youngest hue
About old forests; while the willow trails
Its delicate amber; and the dairy pails
Bring home increase of milk. And as the year
Grows lush in juicy stalks, I’ll smoothly steer
My little boat, for many quiet hours,
With streams that deepen freshly into bowers.
Many and many a verse I hope to write
Before the daisies, vermeil-rimmed and white,
Hide in deep herbage; and ere yet the bees
Hum about globes of clover and sweet peas,
I must be near the middle of my story.
O may no wintry season, bare and hoary,
See it half-finished, but let autumn bold,
With universal tinge of sober gold,
Be all about me, when I make an end.

And then the opening scene—the fresh woodland glade, with its marble altar sacred to Pan—the trooping of children, and the gathering of the elder shepherd folk at dawn for sacrifice—the venerable priest—the simple rites, so picturesquely touched—and the joy and varied converse of the succeeding festival—with what magic of quiet pastoral beauty they prepare us for the varied and fantastic, but always beautiful scenes that follow. The Episode of Adonis, perhaps too cloyingly overtouched, but yet wonderfully beautiful—(and we must remember that the poet was not giving us a personal conception of manly beauty; but merely reviving a dream of antiquity)—the sudden passage of Endymion from the tremendous subterranean cavern into the sea, and the magical stroke of art with which it is portrayed:—

He turned—there was a whelming sound—he stept
There was a cooler light; and so he kept
Toward it by a sandy path, and lo!
The visions of the earth were gone and fled—
He saw the giant sea above his head!

The story of Glaucus—the picture of Circe’s bower and her horrible incantations—and that description, most tender and most lovely of the translucent ocean sepulcre, wherein Glaucus had gathered and laid away the bodies of shipwrecked lovers throughout all the thousand years of his withered old age—the gorgeous scenes in the sea-palace of Neptune—the image of sleep in the fourth book—and the tranquil tenderness of the concluding lines—all these must be mentioned for they unite together to produce the effect of an indescribable charm.

When Keats wrote Endymion he was in the very hey-day of his young inspiration. Possessed by the novelty and splendor of his subject, and impatient to reach the consciousness of a mighty task performed, he went to work upon it with an intense and headlong energy. He had as yet no moulded style of diction, or settled habit of versification, so he toiled on with his story recklessly, working in the wealth of his fancy and imagination in almost overpowering profusion, fashioning and breaking up his lines, phrases and sentences in every conceivable way, turning and twisting and supplementing the ideas to suit the rhymes with inexhaustible ingenuity, and sometimes permitting this necessity of the rhyme to lead him off into the subtlest and most out of the way conceits. The following is one of innumerable passages which might be chosen as examples both of the poet’s swift fertility of invention and his recklessness in manipulating rhymes:—

                                    The Morphean fount
Of that fine element that visions, dreams,
And fitful whims of sleep are made of, streams
Into its airy channel with so subtle,
So thin a breathing, not the spider’s shuttle,
Circled a million times within the space
Of a swallow’s nest door, could delay a trace,
A tinting of its quality[.]

But the eager rush for the rhyme occasionally tempted him to accept images and ideas, which, ingenious as they might be, were quite questionable from the artistic point of view, as for instance:—

                          For in good truth
Our vows are wanting to our great god Pan;
Are not our lowing heifers sleeker than
Night-swollen mushrooms[?]

Sometimes it resulted in such oddities as this:

                          Be still the unimaginable lodge
For solitary thinkings; such as dodge
Conception to the very bourne of heaven,
Then leave the naked brain[.]

Once in a while in his impatience he forgot the dignity of his theme altogether, as when he makes Venus issue this every day sort of invitation to Endymion:—

                                   "Prythee, soon,
Visit my Cytherea; thou wilt find
Cupid well-nurtured, my Adonis kind;
And pray persuade with thee—Ah I have done.
All blessings be upon thee, my sweet son!"

Yet crude and hasty as the diction of the poem is as a whole, we meet with frequent passages, in which the full light of the poet’s inspiration seems to glow upon him, and he gives us a perfect foretaste of "Lamia" or Hyperion. What could be better than this:—

It was a sounding grotto vaulted, vast,
O’er studded with a thousand thousand pearls,
And crimson-mouthèd shells with stubborn curls,
Of every shape and size, even to the bulk,
In which whales harbour close, to brood and sulk
Against an endless storm.

In such lines as the following we almost touch the full tone of Hyperion:—

                                  At this with maddened stare,
And lifted hands, and trembling lips, he stood,
Like old Deucalion mountained o’er the flood,
Or blind Orion hungry for the morn.

Or in these others:—

                                          Thy bright team
Gulfs in the morning light, and scuds along,
To bring thee nearer to that golden song,
Apollo singeth, while his chariot
Waits at the doors of heaven[.]

And what more perfectly realized bit of picturing has ever been penned by any sea-worshipper than this:

                                         As when a new
Old ocean rolls a lengthening wave to shore,
Down whose green back the short-lived foam, all hoar,
Bursts gradual with a wayward indolence.

Endymion was Keats’ great apprentice task, and in it he worked out all his crudities and weaknesses, and had done with them forever. No one was more acutely aware of its faults and immaturity than Keats himself, and there could not be a stronger evidence of the real power of the man than his stoical ability to regard the fruit of so much thought and labour as a mere exercise and clearing of the way for something better to come. "My ideas of it[,]" he says in a letter to Haydon, "I assure you are very low, and I would write the subject thoroughly again, but I am tired of it, and think the time would be better spent in writing a new romance, which I have in my eye for next summer." "In Endymion", he writes in another letter, "I leaped head long into the sea, and thereby I 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[.]"

The preface which now stands at the beginning of the poem is an example of this admirable modesty and manly self-knowledge in the character of Keats. We are told, however, that it was substituted in deference to the earnest advice of his friends for an earlier one, which was not by any means so humble; for Keats, with all his wisdom and faculty of seeing things as they are, was full of defiant and combattive pride. He says in regard to it in a letter to Reynolds: "I have not the slightest feeling of humility toward the public, or to anything in existence but the Eternal Being, the Principle of Beauty, and the Memory of Great Men. When I am writing for myself, for the mere sake of the moment’s enjoyment, perhaps nature has its course with me, but a preface is written to the public—a thing I cannot help looking upon as an enemy, and which I cannot address without feelings of hostility[.]"

We have already seen what Keats’ views were in regard to the general use and purpose of poetry, and now in a letter to Taylor, his publisher, written in February 1818, he lays down the following maxims as to the essential qualities, which poetry should have: "First", he says, "I think poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity. It should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance. Secondly, its touches of beauty should never be half-way, thereby making the reader breathless instead of content. The rise, the progress, and the setting of imagery should like the sun come natural to him, shine over him, and set soberly, although in magnificence, leaving him in the luxury of twilight[.] And lastly, that if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves of a tree, it had better not come at all[.]" These are the high laws of poetry, excellently expressed, and yet they would exclude a good deal of the ablest verse of the last half century, or at least put it to a hard fight for its place and rank. Neverthe-less [sic] they are the high laws, and the ultimate fame of every poet has hitherto been settled by them, or something like them, and no doubt the same thing will continue to be true in the future.

The early months of the winter of 1817-18, which Keats spent at Hampstead, were the brief May-time of his heart, and the happiest days of his life. He went a good deal into company, and was every where courted and beloved for his gayety, the flashing wit and wisdom of his talk, and withal his rare courtesy and sweetness of temper. This gentleness of disposition could, however, be interrupted sometimes at the mention of oppression or any wrong by a sudden flame of indignation, which we are told was almost terrible in one so habitually sweet-natured. At the same time, as Lord Houghton tells us, "plain manly practical life on the one hand, and a free exercise of his rich imagination on the other, were the ideal of his existence. His poetry never weakened his action; and his simple every day habits never coarsen the beauty of the world within him[.]"

His intellectual activity lay almost entirely in the region of the imagination, and indeed this was the only sort of intellectuallity for which he had any desire or any regard. "Oh, for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts!", he cries in one of his letters to Bailey, meaning partly, as we gather from another passage in the same letter, that he trusted the results of imaginative intuition in preference to the results of consecutive reasoning. And this idea he connected with a singular speculation, viz., that "we shall enjoy ourselves hereafter by having what we call happiness on earth repeated in a finer tone—the simple imaginative mind may have its rewards in the repetition of its own silent working coming continually on the spirit with a fine suddeness." "And yet", he says to Bailey, "such a fate can only befall those who delight in sensation rather than hunger as you do after Truth." Again he says "I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the Truth of Imagination. What the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be Truth, whether it existed before or not; for I have the same idea of all our passions as of love; they are all in their sublime creative of essential Beauty[.]"

The more one learns of Keats the more one must wonder at the astonishing activity of his creative gift, and the range and brilliancy of his imagination. These appear not only in his finished poems, but to an equally great extent in his letters and the carelessly scribbled verses with which he was fond of interspersing them. What a bit of beautiful fancy and nimble invention is the following passage from a letter to Reynolds; and does it not also contain counsel good for a man’s soul, provided it be not carried to extreme. That indeed might result in a dangerous intellectual indolence:—

Many have original minds, who do not think it; they are led away by custom. Now it appears to me that any man may, like the spider, spin from his own inwards his own airy citadel. The points of leaves and twigs, on which the spider begins her work, are few, and she fills the air with a beautiful circuiting. Man should be content with as few points to tip with the fine web of his soul, and weave a tapestry empyrean—full of symbols for his spiritual eye, of softness for his spiritual touch, of space for his wanderings, of distinctness for his luxury. But the minds of mortals are so different and bent on such divers journeys that it may at first appear impossible for any common taste and fellowship to exist between two or three under these suppositions. It is however quite the contrary. Minds would leave each other in contrary directions, traverse each other at numberless points, and at last greet each other at the journey’s end. An old man and a child would talk together, and the old man be led on his path and the child left thinking. Man should not dispute or assert, but whisper results to his neighbor, and thus be every germ of spirit, sucking the sap from mould etherial, every human being might become great, and humanity, instead of being a wide heath of furze and briar, with here and there a remote oak or pine, would become a grand democracy of forest trees.

Indeed in the wit and wisdom of these careless letters there is abundant proof that Keats possessed not only the power to develope an exquisite quality of poetic utterance, but all the wider gifts necessary for the production of a most varied and splendid poetry. It has been said, and it seems to me with perfect truth, that his was the most Shakespearian genius since Shakespeare. He belonged to the same order of poets, and the rarer—the objective viz.; whereas most of the men of his time, Wordsworth and Shelley for instance, were in their genius purely subjective. We cannot imagine Wordsworth writing a drama. The instinct of Keats’ imagination was to merge itself in the nature of the thing he was considering, the instinct of Wordsworth’s to endow the object of his ref[l]ection with his own individuality. Shakespeare was the most objective of all poets, and therefore the most dramatic. His personallity is totally lost in the vital concourse of typical human beings in whom his imagination lived. Shakespeare is to us a name and a world. As a personallity he is scarcely less shadowy than Homer. The genius of Keats was of the same assimilative quality, and I believe that he would have developed dramatic power. He was somewhat fond of dwelling upon this distinction himself, and occasionally referred to it in his letters in a very whimsical manner: "As to the poetical character itself," he writes to Woodhouse, "(I mean that sort of which, if I am anything, I am a member; that sort distinguished from the Wordsworthian, or egotistical sublime, which is a thing per se, and stands alone), it is not itself—it has no self—it is everything, and nothing—it has no character—it enjoys light and shade—it lives in gusts, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—it has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. …A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no identity; he is continually in for, and filling some other body…It is a wretched thing to confess, but it is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature. When I am in a room with people, if I am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then, not myself goes home to myself, but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me, so that I am in a very little time anihilated—not only among men, it would be the same in a nursery of children[.]"

Nothing can bring home to us with greater poignancy the piteousness of the tragedy of Keats’ life than to come upon some of the personal descriptions, left us by those who knew or saw him during these his last hopeful and radiant days[.] Mrs. Procter remembered him at one of Hazlitt’s lectures, "His eyes large and blue, his hair auburn; he wore it divided down the centre, and it fell in rich masses on each side his face; his mouth was full and less intellectual than his other features. His countenance lives in my mind as one of singular beauty and brightness. It had an expression as if he had been looking on some glorious sight." Leigh Hunt describes him, "the eyes mellow and glowing, large, dark and sensitive. At the recital of a noble action or a beautiful thought they would suffuse with tears, and his mouth trembled.["] "The character and expression of his features", we learn from another, "would arrest even the casual passenger in the street." "Keats was the only man I ever met," says Haydon, "who seemed and looked conscious of a high calling, except Wordsworth." Severn tells us of his wild delight in landscape, and of the extraordinary effect produced upon him by certain natural phenomena, particularly the sound of the wind rushing through dense masses of foliage or the spectacle of its passage across billowing grain fields of oats or barley. "I can never forget the wine-like lustre of Keats’ eyes", he said, "just like those of certain birds who habitually front the sun[.]"

There was now as at all times in Keats’ character a manly clearsightedness, which fully counteracted the dangerous tendencies of a too vivid imagination, and an acutely sensuous disposition. The moral side was sufficiently developed in him; in other words he was wise and sane, as well as intensely able. "That sort of probity and disinterestedness", he said, "which such men as Bailey possess, does hold and grasp the tip-top of any spiritual honours than can be paid to anything in this world." This is indeed only an expression of feeling in regard to others, but it was a feeling strong enough, we know, to be a guide to his own conduct.

In March 1818 Keats went down to Teignmouth in Devonshire, and remained there more than two months in company with his brothers. Here he finished the "Pot of Basil", which had been already begun before leaving Hampstead. This was to be one of a series of versified tales from Boccaccio, projected by himself and his friend Reynolds. Keats got no farther than the "Pot of Basil", and Reynolds composed only two, those, viz., which afterwards appeared in a little book entitled The Garden of Florence.

With the "Pot of Basil" Keats seemed to leap at a bound into the period of full maturity. Here there are very few of the old adopted mannerisms and conscious singularities in the use of phrases and words; there is no longer any sacrifice of simplicity and clearness for the sake of the rhyme; the poet proceeds from the first stanza to the last, holding the motif of his tale perfectly in hand in the clean mastery of his art; and yet this poem, it seems to me, is not entirely successful as a presentment of the tragic piteousness of its subject. It is composed with exquisite art; but Keats, although he had now reached maturity in the power of expression, had not as yet, I think, completely escaped from his educational period on the side of experience and feeling. As an artist he was fully equipped, but the sheer eloquence of human passion and suffering had not yet seized upon his tongue, for he had not yet made them the familiar companions of his own heart. The "Pot of Basil" is not comparable in success to the "Eve of St. Agnes" in another vein; for in the latter poem the theme concerns itself altogether with the picturesque, and that budding luxury of passion which is the very essence of youth. The poet was here within the bound of his own perfect mastery. In the work now under consideration, the verse is rather picturesque than eloquent; it is a little too artificial to carry the true accent of the utter piercingness of woe.

This poem was finished as I have said at Teignmouth in April 1818, and was the last product of Keats’ happier youth. From this time the darkness begins to gather, shadow by shadow, about his life. At Teignmouth he saw his younger brother Tom sinking rapidly into consumption. Later on in the summer his other brother George, to whom he was tenderly attached, left England for America in great uncertainty as to his fortunes. At the same time the first symptoms of failure in his own health began to show themselves[.] His financial affairs were in an unsatisfactory condition, and he had suffered some disillusionment as to the success of his poems, and the prospect of deriving any income from them. A certain constitutional "morbidity of temperament", to which he had long before referred in one of his letters, drew him more frequently under its spell, and he was beginning also to have experiences of that "Burden of the Mystery," as he calls it, which is a dangerous ordeal in the youth of every serious and imaginative soul. In his letters from this time forth to the end a sort of cry breaks, every now and then, through his stoical efforts to present a brave and hopeful front to his friends. Sometimes there is a strain of cynicism not met with before, a cynicism, however, which had little bitterness in it, for there could never be anything acid or rancorous in the nature of Keats. Sometimes the very assertion he makes of tranquillity and contentment has in it a too careful note, an accent which betrays the irrepressible undercurrent of despair. Once during these months in a letter to Reynolds he compared human life to a large mansion of many apartments: "The first we step into," he says, "we call the Infant or thoughtless chamber", in which we remain as long as we do not think. We remain there a long while; and not withstanding the doors of the second chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it, but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle within us. We no sooner get into the second chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere. We see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there forever in delight. However, among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the heart and nature of man, of convincing one’s nerves that the world is full of misery and heart break, pain, sickness, and oppression, whereby this Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darkened, and at the same time on all sides of it, many doors are set open, but all dark—all leading to dark passages. We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a mist; we are in that state we feel the ‘Burden of the Mystery’." In this state of mind Keats grew impatient with his own ignorance, and felt a most determined impulse toward the getting of knowledge:— "An extensive knowledge", he says, "is needful to thinking people. It takes away the heat and fever, and, helps, by widening speculation, to ease the ‘Burden of the Mystery’, a thing which I begin to understand a little. The difference of high sensations, with or without knowledge, appears to me this: In the latter case we are continually falling ten thousand fathoms deep, and being blown up again without wings, and with all the horror of a bare-shouldered creature; in the former case our shoulders are fledged, and we go through the same air and space without fear."

During the summer of 1818 the poet undertook a walking tour to the west coast of Scotland in the company of Charles Armitage Brown, that friend who, with the painter Joseph Severn, deserves to receive a sort of literary canonization, as having rendered the most faithful services to Keats in his last unhappy days. The tour did him little good; for although his imagination no doubt strengthened its wings, and added to its resources in the presence of mountain scenery, the exposure and over-exertion resulted in a trouble of the throat that never left him, and was the precursor of the fatal malady, which consumed his life. On his return to Hampstead in the autumn, he found his brother Tom very ill, and he set to work to watch him night and day, sacrificing everything, including sleep and nourishment, to the necessities of the invalid. The unfortunate boy died within a few months, but not before the lack of proper rest, the terrible nervous strain, and the misery of watching the slow and painful extinction of a so beloved life, had gone far to sap the poet’s own strength.

In the meantime Endymion had become another target for the savage stone-throwing of the northern reviewers, and that famous critique had been written, which was supposed by Byron and Shelley to have been the death of Keats. Two most violent and offensive articles had been printed, one in the Blackwood[’]s magazine and one in the Quarterly Review. The former was either written or inspired by Lockhart, afterwards the biographer of Scott, a man of a most treacherous and malignant disposition. The authorship of the other is unknown, but Gifford, the editor of the Quarterly, was held responsible for it. These articles were the outcome solely of political venom and party rage; for the poet was set down as a member of the so-called "Cockney School", a circle of young London writers, who as the friends of Leigh Hunt, a liberal and suspected revolutionist, were assailed by the press of the Tory reaction with every weapon of calumny and abuse. We have too many evidences of the soundness of Keats’ judgment to suppose that he attached any weight to utterances totally without literary merit and palpably the product of mere ignorant and brutal prejudice. We find that he refers to them in one of his letters in this sensible and manly way:

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 inflict, and also when I feel I am right, no external praise can give me such a glow as my own solitary reperception and ratification of what is fine[.]

But although these attacks failed utterly to shake Keats’ confidence in the genuineness of his own power, they did no doubt serve to open his eyes to the real character of the literary life ahead of him; where fame and livelihood could only be attained by perpetual warfare with envy, hatred, and malice and all uncharitableness. Moreover worthless as they were, they had sufficient effect upon the book-buying public of the day to materially injure the success of his poems. The gloom which was already gathering over his mind was thus indirectly deepened by them, and to this extent the literary bravos of the north may be said to have contributed to the final ruin of Keats’ life[.]

Added to all this Keats now began to form that unfortunate love-passion, which exercised so baleful an influence over a soul, which more than anything else at that time was in need of peace, and some tranquillizing environment. I can imagine that an attachment for a woman, who could have entered into Keats’ life with full moral and intellectual sympathy, would have done him the greatest good; but unhappily the attachment he did form was mainly one of passion, and not of sympathy. We know that Fanny Brawne repaid the poet’s love with a perfectly faithful and genuine affection, but we also gather from the recorded expressions of his friends, and the restless and jealous character of his relations with her that she did not in the least realize what manner of man Keats was, nor was she at all capable of satisfying the spiritual yearning that must have racked his soul at that time. To a man of Keats’ vivid and intensely sensitive nature, already overgloomed with many troubles, and rendered additionally feverish by the secret approaches of disease, a passion such as this was the source of continual and disastrous agitation. It has left no direct traces upon his finished work but in some of his careless rhymes the bitterness of it breaks forth in a heart-rending cry:

What can I do to drive away
Remembrance from my eyes?

Where shall I learn to get my peace again[?]

and in a most piteous sonnet, dated 1819[:]

Yourself—your soul—in pity give me all;
    Withhold no atom’s atom or I die,
Or, living on perhaps your wretched thrall,
    Forget in the mists of idle misery,
Life’s purposes—the palate of my mind
Losing its gust—and my ambition blind!

To make matters worse his financial affairs were now in such a state that for the first time the apprehension of poverty stared him in the face, and marriage seemed a thing not to be contemplated.

After the death of his brother Keats went into partnership in house-keeping with his friend Brown at Hampstead, and now in spite of his restless and unhappy condition, which, however, was still relieved by some brighter intervals, he entered upon a period of great poetic activity. In the next nine months nearly all the great and incomparable poems of his last volume were written. He began Hyperion, a subject which he had been turning in his mind for more than a year. He intended it to be the final and perfected fruit of the love of Greek legend which had hitherto afforded the keenest stimulus to his sense of beauty. This extraordinary poem grew under his hands at intervals during the winter and spring of 1819, until it reach[ed] the length of about two books and a half, 883 lines in all. The form and manner of it were to a certain extent due to the poet’s recent study of Paradise Lost. I cannot see that there [are] more than half a dozen lines here and there, in which there [is] anything like a direct imitation of Milton’s phrase, but the influence is discernible in the immensity of the scale upon which all its figures are drawn[,] the set and lofty flow of the diction, and the elemental grandeur of the imagery. It is not an imitation of Milton, but a resumption and adaptation, in a different key and to a different colouring, of the spirit of Milton. It was a fruit of that delight in grand writing for its own sake, which up to this time Keats not only felt, but often expressed: "I am convinced more and more every day", he says, "that (excepting the human-friend philosopher) a fine writer is the most genuine being in the world. Shakespeare and the Paradise Lost every day become greater wonders to me. I look upon fine phrases like a lover[.]" Neverthe-less [sic], even now, there was something developing in his soul which compelled him to a discontent with that excellence, which was purely artistic, however grand. It was the rapid growth of this feeling which rendered it impossible for him to continue Hyperion:—"I have given up Hyperion", he says in September of this same year; "there were too many Miltonic inversions in it. Miltonic verse can not be written but in an artful, or rather artist’s, humour. I wish to give myself up to other sensations." In other words his genius was growing and the realities of purely human effort and human passion were beginning to claim their inevitable right to absorb and direct his creative impulse. I think we [should] not regret that this poem was not finished; at the same time what a loss our literature would have sustained, had it never been begun. It remains a fragment equally grand and beautiful, a monument of the sheer power of the imagination and the glory of flexile and masterful language. Here is his description of Thea, "the tender spouse of gold Hyperion":

She was a goddess of the infant world:
By her in stature the tall Amazon
Had stood a pigmy’s height; she would have ta’en
Achilles by the hair, and bent his neck
Or with a finger stayed Ixion’s wheel.
Her face was large as that of Memphian sphinx,
Pedestalled haply in a palace court,
When sages looked to Egypt for their lore.
But Oh! how unlike marble was that face,
How beautiful, if sorrow had not made
Sorrow more beautiful than Beauty’s self.
There was a listening fear in her regard,
As if calamity had but begun;
As if the vanward clouds of evil days
Had spent their malice, and the sullen rear
Was with its stored thunder laboring up[.]
One hand she pressed upon that aching spot
Where beats the human heart, as if just there,
Though an immortal, she felt cruel pain;
The other upon Saturn’s bended neck
She laid, and to the level of his ear
Leaning with parted lips, some words she spake,
In solemn tenour and deep organ tone:
Some mourning words, which in our feeble tongu[e]
Would come in these like accents—Oh how frail—
To that large utterance of the early Gods.

What tremendous lines are those in which he tells how Enceladus broke in upon the speech of Clymene:—

So far her voice flowed on like timorous brook
That lingering along a pebbled coast,
Doth fear to meet the sea: but sea it met,
And shuddered; for the overwhelming voice
Of huge Enceladus swallowed it in wrath:
The ponderous syllables like sullen waves
In the half-glutted hollows of reef-rocks
Came booming thus while still upon his arm
He leaned; not rising, from supreme contempt[.]

In January Keats wrote the "Eve of St. Agnes", which is, next to the Odes, the most successful of all his poems. How indicative it is of the extraordinary boyancy and energy of Keats’ genius that in an interval of the composition of a work like Hyperion, the embodiment of the restrained and statuesque, his imagination should have clothed itself, so suddenly and so perfectly, in all the glamour of mediæval romance, conveying with that warm and luxurious touch the essence of things tenderly beautiful and so long past and gone. From the first line to the last there is not a false note, not a deviation from the fine strain of the imagining, not a shadow of sinking in the exquisite current of the music. In conception, form, cadence and diction, the enchantment is complete. The following stanzas, which are the three last, carry the effect of the poem to its highest pitch, and leave us under the full influence of its spell:—

   She hurried at the words, beset with fears,
   For there were sleeping dragons all around,
   At glaring watch, perhaps, with ready spears—
   Down the wide stairs a darkling way they found[.]
   In all the house there was no human sound.
   A chain-drooped lamp was flickering by each door;
   The arras, rich with horseman, hawk and hound,
   Fluttered in the besieging wind’s uproar;
And the long carpets rose along the gusty floor.

   They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall;
   Like phantoms, to the iron porch they glide;
   Where lay the porter in uneasy sprawl,
   With a huge empty flagon by his side:
   The wakeful bloodhound rose, and shook his hide,
   But his sagacious eye an inmate owns:
   By one and one the bolts full easy slide:
   The chains lie silent on the foot-worn stones;
The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans.

   And they are gone; ay, ages long ago
   These lovers fled away into the storm.
   That night the baron dreamt of many a woe,
   And all his warrior guests, with shade and form
   Of witch, and demon, and large coffin worm
   Were long benightmared. Angela the old
   Died palsy-twitched, with meagre face deform;
   The beadsman, after thousand aves told,
For aye unsought for, slept among his ashes cold.

Who that has ever read it does not find ringing in his ears line upon line of that magical versification. The poet displays more frequently in this poem, I think, than in any other that unerring selective sense, which only the supreme poets have, the faculty of seizing upon the one particular image necessary to convey in a single phrase the perfect effect of the scene:—

St. Agnes Eve—ah bitter chill it was!
The owl for, all his feathers, was acold[.]

There is a chill in the very phrase:

   The boisterous, midnight, festive clarion,
   The kettledrum and far-heard clarionet
   Affray his ears, though but in dying tone:
The hall door shuts again, and all the noise is gone[.]

What a magical touch!

About the end of January another poem, the "Eve of S[ain]t Mark", was begun. This interesting fragment, which was not included in the collected works, is still another example of the poet’s great versatility. We have no means of ascertaining what the intent of the poem was, but the manner of the lines, which are written, seems to point to that reaching out after the actual, that deepening seriousness of motive and desire for direct character painting, which led to the abandonment of Hyperion. The opening lines, for instance[,] are quickly realistic, with a tenderly sympathetic touch:—

Upon a Sabbath day it fell
Twice holy was the Sabbath bell,
That called the folk to evening prayer;
The city streets were clean and fair,
With wholesome drench of April rains;
And on the western window panes
The chilly sunset faintly told
Of unmatured green, vallies cold,
Of the green, thorny, bloomless hedge,
Of rivers new with spring-tide sedge;
Of primroses by sheltered rills,
And daisies in the aguish hills.

And again this picture, from which Ros[s]etti may have caught something:—

Bertha was a maiden fair,
Dwelling in the old minster square;
From her fireside she could see,
Sidelong, its rich antiquity,
Far as the Bishop’s garden wall,
Where sycamores and elm-trees tall,
Full-leaved, the forest had outstript,
By no sharp north wind ever nipt;
So sheltered by the mighty pile,
Bertha arose and read awhile,
With forehead ’gainst the window pane.
Again she tried, and then again,
Until the dusk eve left her dark
Upon the legend of St. Mark[.]
From plaited lawn-frill, fine and thin,
She lifted up her soft warm chin,
With aching neck and swimming eyes,
Dazed with saintly imageries[.]

The opening of spring was always a time of renewed inspiration with Keats, and the spring of 1819 was the season of his greatest good fortune as a poet, for it gave us five at least of the odes.

A nightingale had built her nest in a plum-tree in the garden of the house occupied by Keats and Brown at Hampstead, and we are told that Keats experienced the utmost delight in her singing. One morning he took his chair from the breakfast table, and sat for two or three hours under the tree. When he came in Brown noticed that he had a number of scraps of paper in his hand, which he was endeavouring to thrust behind some books. Brown secured possession of them, and with the help of the poet arranged them in their proper order. This was the "Ode to a Nightingale" beyond comparison the most perfect and most beautiful poem of the kind in our language. If we compare these mellowed and assured stanzas with any of Keats’ work of former years, we perceive in them a deepening of the tone which comes to every true poet gradually with the deepening of experience, and especially the experience of suffering. Our language hardly shows another example of actual and evident despair sublimated through the controlling spirit of beauty into a strain of such tender but utter melancholy. Many poets have given expression to pain in their own forceful and outright fashions; but with Keats it was a necessity of the fullness of his poetic nature that all things had to reach utterance by passing through the atmosphere of Beauty, leaving behind them everything that was raw and violent in the process. His very life blood falling drop by drop must mould itself into some exquisite form:—

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret,
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few sad last grey hairs,
And youth grows pale and spectre thin and dies
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
            And leaden-eyed dispairs [sic],
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird,
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown[:]
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
            The same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements opening on the foam
Of perilous seas in fairy lands forlorn.

The "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and the much inferior "Ode to Indolence" we owe partly to a visit paid by Keats in February to the marbles in the British Museum[.] It seems to me that the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" marks an epoch in English literature[.] It was a sort of revelation. It has added grace to thousands of refined minds, and lifted the whole plane of intellectual enjoyment. Moreover, but for it, Tennyson would probably never have written his "Legend of Fair Women", or his "Palace of Art", nor Matthew Arnold his "Thyrsis" or his "Scholar Gipsy". It is interesting not only for the incomparable loveliness of the imagery and versification, but as an enunciation of the fruitful idea, which up to this time Keats had had most at heart. It is his clearest expression of pure and happy trust in Beauty—Beauty, as comprehending all things that the soul need care for:—

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Leadest thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed
What little town, by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain built with peaceful citadel,
I[s] emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets forever more
Will silent be, and not a soul to tell,
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! Fair Attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed
Thou, silent form, dost teaze us out of thought
As doth Eternity! Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st
‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty’,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know[.]

["]Dost teaze us out of thought as doth Eternity." The effect upon the soul of a thing of perfect beauty is not so much that of completeness as of boundlessness like eternity. Thought cannot go beyond it; and must rest in its presence contented and absorbed. What can it be therefore but Truth— or as Keats thought, the only absolute Truth.

The spring of 1819 also gave us the "Ode to Psyche", upon which we are told by the poet himself that he bestowed more pains than upon anything else that he had written. It is certainly a beautiful poem, but it has neither the significance, nor the altogether irresistible charm, that we find in its two greater companions.

We do not know the date of the fragmentary "Ode to Melancholy." It is hardly less perfect than the others, and this thought, with which it ends, wrought into a stanza of the richest and most artful beauty, embodies a truth familiar to every imaginative mind:

Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veiled Melancholy has her sovereign shrine,
Though seen of none save him, whose strenuous tongu[e]
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

It was apparently also about this time that Keats composed the ballad "La Belle Dame San Merci," a work of weird intensity to which the writers of the school of Ros[s]etti were perhaps partly indebted for the peculiar colouring of much of their poetry. It is not like anything else that he wrote, and reads as if it were a kind of allegory, symbolical of his own wild and thwarted passion. These stanzas were not published in the last volume, but have since found their merited place in the collected works.

The summer of 1819 was spent by Keats and Brown together at Shanklin, in the Isle of Wight. Here they entered upon the composition of the play, called King Otho, Brown furnishing the plot, and Keats the dialogue. In this manner the first four acts were written, while the fifth and strongest was the work of Keats alone. It was hardly to be expected that a play undertaken upon these terms would have been a success, and although Keats at first built some hopes upon it, it ultimately failed of representation on the stage. It was an ill-digested work, the plot and incident overstrained, and imperfectly connected, the dialogue too artificially rhetorical to convey any sustained natural effect; and yet instances of Keats’ easily roused imagination and ready gift of versification are not wanting.

Keats had no sooner finished this play than he began to write another on the subject of "King Stephen", but presently abandoned it leaving a fragment of three scenes and part of a fourth. There is a trenchant Shakespearian vigor in these lines that indicates that he was already making an advance in the direction of the Drama. We know that his great ambition at this time was to write half a dozen good plays, but he expected to approach this achievement through the composition of a few tales, in which there should be a greater substance of character and sentiment than in anything he had yet done. Whether, or not, he had concluded that he was still quite unfit for dramatic writing, he suddenly abandoned "King Stephen" for an undertaking certainly more congenial to the present range of his gifts. This was "Lamia", and it was begun and completed during the late summer and early autumn months of 1819.

In the meantime Brown had returned to London, and Keats had removed to Winchester—a favorite city with him—where he remained for several months absorbed in writing and solitary study.

"Lamia" is perhaps Keats[’] supreme triumph in metrical skill, and it is a surprising testimony to the thriving vitality of his gift. It seems scarcely credible that only two years should have elapsed between this poem and Endymion, the latter so profuse in the faults of haste and inexperience, the former so deliberately masterful both in design and execution. Keats is supposed to have followed the manner of Dryden in the versification of "Lamia" and we know that he had been attentively studying Dryden at that time—but it seems to me that he had Marlow[e]’s Hero and Leander also much in mind, for there is a frequent suggestion of that poem in the turn of the fancy and the weight of the phrase. There is too a staid reminiscence of Milton here and there, and an almost utter absence of the boyish and effusive luxuries of the poet’s early manner. Over the whole poem there is cast a glamour, which bears the imagination irresistibly into the crowded and gorgeous civilisation of the later life of Greece. It is all of it splendidly realized, and many of its descriptive passages are unsurpassable for easy picturesque power and luxurious charm of language. I may cite the following famous lines from the description of the entry of Lamia and her lover into the twilight streets of Corinth:—

As men talk in a dream, so Corinth all
Throughout her palaces imperial,
And all her populous streets and temples lewd
Muttered like tempest in the distance brewed
To the wide-spreaded night above her towers.
Men, women, rich and poor, in the cool hours
Shuffled their sandals o’er the pavement white
Companioned or alone; while many a light
Flared, here and there, from wealthy festivals
And there their moving shadows on the walls,
Or found them clustered in the corniced shade
Of some arched temple door, or dusky colonnade[.]

One of the most beautiful passages is that in which he gives expression to a lingering poetic prejudice of his youth—a thought, which is scarcely a prejudice, however, if he meant to apply it only to the methods of mere uninspired and fact-accumulating science:

                              Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture—she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air and gnomèd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-personed Lamia melt into a shade[.]

Another fruit of Keats’ sojourn at Winchester was the last of the Odes, the "Ode to Autumn", written after a stroll among the country lanes on a mellow late September day. Its origin is best described in the words of one of his own letters to Reynolds:

How beautiful the season is now. How fine the air—a temperate sharpness about it. Really without joking chaste weather, Dian skies. I never liked stubble fields so much as now—ay, better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble-field looks warm in the same way that some pictures look warm. This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.

This "Ode to Autumn" has had a great part in creating that love for nature poetry, as we call it, which distinguishes the present generation. We have learned from Wordsworth a pure and solemn veneration for the grandeur and beauty of earth and sky: in Shelley this impulse glowed up into a sort of wild and transfiguring passion; but Keats is the representative of another phase, which is perhaps nearer to the common heart than either, the genial love of the outward things of this earth—the mood of sensitive and luxurious delight.

So the summer and early autumn of 1819 passed away, and in spite of his frequent and intense application to work, Keats continued in great trouble and perturbation of spirit. We find him more and more discontented with his manner of life in view partly of the gradual dissipation of the small remnant of his fortune and the near approach of absolute poverty. At one time he cries out fiercely against the literary habits of the age, and asserts his determination to have nothing to do with the trickery of the publishing world; at another with the utmost pathetic humility he tells Brown that he is prepared to devote his pen to any kind of drudgery for the sake of a livelihood and the means of occasional independence. He came finally to the resolution of establishing himself in London in solitary lodgings, and seeking employment from the periodicals. He had hardly, however, carried this design into execution, when the supreme attraction, which always existed at Hampstead, the presence of his beloved, drew him from it, and presently we find him in his old quarters, leading the former self-questioning and vacillating life. At this time his restlessness and misery of soul greatly increased, and he began to be altogether careless of his health. Yet in spite of the many causes of agony, which were silently working ruin in his life, he managed to go on for some little time with two very diverse undertakings. Exceedingly strange it is, and yet a thing by no means unparalleled in the poetic life, that one of these was a poem of a comic or satirical character—a kind of fairy tale—called "The Cap and Bells". He was prompted to this design by the study of Ariosto, which had engaged him during part of the summer, and the eighty eight Spenserian stanzas, which are left us are full of a pleasant and fanciful humourousness, and touched everywhere with Keats[’] surprising knack of versification.

The other project upon which he laboured was the interesting and pathetic attempt to remodel Hyperion. Instead of carrying on the original narrative, he had decided to give the whole poem the form of a vision, in which he should receive the tale from the lips of Mnemosyne, whom he conceived to be the guardian of the Temple of Saturn at Rome. In the introduction to the new form of the work he gave expression to some of the awful reflections, which were pressing upon his disordered soul. This is the language in which Mnemosyne addresses the spirit of the dreamer, who has penetrated to her presence, and to whom she unveils the melancholy splendour of her face:

"Those whom thou spakest of are no visionaries",
Rejoined that voice, "they are no dreamers weak;
They seek no wonder but the human face,
No music but a happy noted voice;
They come not here, they have no thought to come;
And thou art here, for thou art less than they.
What benefit canst thou do, or all thy tribe,
To the great world? Thou art a dreaming thing,
A fever of thyself; think of the earth:
What bliss, even in hope, is there for thee?
What haven? Every creature hath its home,
Every sole man hath days of joy and pain—
Whether his labours be sublime or low—
The pain alone, the joy alone, distinct:
Only the dreamer venoms all his days,
Bearing more woe than all his sins deserve.
Therefore that happiness be somewhat shared,
Such things as thou art are admitted oft
Into like gardens thou did’st pass erewhile,
And suffered in these temples[.]"

This was the fatal result of his own experience which had put him at cross-purposes with the profound and serious conception of human responsibility which was really his, and which ought, for his own happiness, to have been the guiding light of his life. However much a certain phase of his character drew him to the mere dreamer’s existence, a full and active humanity was the true motive power of his soul, and it could only be satisfied with an intimate share in the common life of men. He had come to think that the life of the wise and seriously-minded man, who is a poet, and a poet solely, must of necessity be unhappy; for it is the life of one, who is intensely conscious of human suffering, and is persuaded that man’s existence is only justified by his usefulness in making that suffering less, yet who is forever haunted by the horrible fear that the fruit of all his own intellectual travail is in the end nothing but vanity. To this point had Keats come in his twenty fifth year, and we are not surprised to learn that in a little while he had dropt work altogether[.] The plan of the "Vision", like "The Cap and Bells", was never completed, and the poet’s brief, but wonderful, life-work had ceased never to be resumed. On the 3d of February 1820 came the first actual revelation of the awful disease, which had been creeping upon him. He was taken with spitting of blood. "Bring me the candle, Brown", he cried, "and let me see this blood"; and then looking into his friend’s face with a calmness the latter could never forget, he said, "I know the colour of that blood; it is arterial blood. I cannot be mistaken in that colour; that drop of blood is my death warrant; I must die!"

He rallied, however, and during the months of the winter and spring led the life of an invalid, apparently in slow convalescence. He was forbidden to undertake the nervous strain of composition, and the eager energy of his mind, denied its only outlet, and reduced to helplessness by the sickness and prostration of the flesh, preyed upon itself in continual agony. The knowledge that his friends, and above all the woman, who was never absent from his thoughts, were moving about in all the brightness and freedom of health, while he himself was being dragged from them by the hand of a pitiless and irresistible destiny, added always to the violence of his sufferings. Under these circumstances everything militated against his recovery; and in June he was overtaken by a dreadful relapse. As the autumn drew on, it became apparent that a winter in England would kill him, and his physician ordered him to Italy. It was impossible that he should go alone, and, as Brown was absent at that time in Scotland, the young painter, Joseph Severn, under circumstances, which rendered the act one of considerable self-sacrifice, offered to accompany him. The two set sail from London on the 18 September 1820. The voyage was a tedious and tempestuous one. For two weeks the vessel beat about the English Channel, and one fine day—a single interruption in bad weather—they put in upon the coast of Dorsetshire. Keats and Severn landed, and after many hours spent in examining the wonders and beauties of the coast, a happier mood and momentary return of inspiration came to the poet, and he wrote on a blank leaf in his copy of Shakespeare the following sonnet, his last, and the tenderest, loftiest, and most touching, in the English language:—

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art,
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,
And watching with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s, patient, sleepless eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores
Or gazing at the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors.
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel forever its soft fall and swell,
Awake forever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still, to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death[.]

After a short sojourn at Naples, where the miserable political conditions grated harshly on the disturbed sensibilities of Keats, the friends removed to Rome. In the last letters written at this time Keats gives full expression to the wild intensity of the love-passion, which was now the root of his bitterest agonies. It was the divorce from her whom he loved, which above all things made it dreadful to him to die: "It surprises me", he cries, "that the human heart is capable of so much misery." At Rome the sufferer experienced the tenderest and most unremitting service from the two noble persons who watched and guarded his life to its end, his companion Severn and Dr. Clarke, a distinguished physician at that time resident in Rome. But his case was a hopeless one; relapse followed relapse, and only the extraordinary energy and tenacity of his spirit kept him alive until February of the next year. There is hardly a more pathetic narrative in the history of letters than Severn’s account of these piteous months. At last from more active sufferings he sank into a helpless and quiescent state. "He opens his [eyes]", says Severn, "in great doubt and horror, but when they fall on me they close gently, open quietly and close again, till he sinks to sleep." The end came on the 23d of February 1821.

Thus died John Keats in his twenty sixth year, a poet who in the three years of his literary life made an epoch in English literature; and not only wrote poems, which are among the imperishable treasures of his country, but sowed the seeds afterward ripened in the genius of a score of more worldly fortunate writers. The charm of his personallity [sic] drew to him many friends, and those some of the brightest spirits of his time. We may judge in what honour and affection he was held by these men by the following extracts from letters written years after his death. Archdeacon Bailey, writing to Lord Houghton, spoke of him as one, ["]whose genius I did not, and do not, more fully admire, than I entirely loved the man—He had a soul of noble integrity, and his common sense was a conspicuous part of his character. Indeed his character was in the best sense manly". "He was the sincerest friend", says Reynolds, "the most loveable associate— the deepest listener to the distresses of all around him, ‘that ever ever lived in this tide of times.’" Haydon calls him "the most unselfish of human creatures"

Under a grassy slope, in the Protestant Cemetery at Rome, near the pyramidal tomb of Caius Cestius, a place now visited yearly by thousands of people, who have gained comfort and delight from his poetry, the bones of Keats still lie, where they were laid seventy one years ago by Joseph Severn. It is one of the most beautiful spots on the favoured earth, and under the radiant sky of Italy. Every spring the slope is closely carpeted with multitudes of flowers—such flowers as the dying poet said that he could feel growing over his head—and the air of the place is filled with the perfume of innumerable violets.