Verse > Anthologies > T. H. Ward, ed. > The English Poets > Vol. IV. Wordsworth to Rossetti
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Thomas Humphry Ward, ed.  The English Poets.  1880–1918.
Vol. IV. The Nineteenth Century: Wordsworth to Rossetti
 
Critical Introduction by Matthew Arnold
John Keats (1795–1821)
 
[John Keats was born in London on the 29th of October, 1795. His father was in the employment of a livery-stable keeper in Moorfields, whose daughter he married. Our poet was born prematurely. He lost his father when he was nine years old, and his mother when he was fifteen. He and his brothers were sent to a good school at Enfield kept by Mr. Clarke, whose son, Charles Cowden Clarke, well known afterwards from his connexion with letters and literary men, was a valuable friend to John Keats. As a schoolboy, Keats seems to have been at first remarked chiefly for his pugnacily and high spirit, but he soon showed a love of reading. On leaving school in 1810 he was apprenticed for five years to a surgeon at Edmonton; he was thus still in the neighbourhood of the Clarkes, who continued to see him, took interest in his awakening powers, and lent him books,—amongst them the Fairy Queen of Spenser, the poet whose influence has left on the poetry of Keats so deep an impression. The young surgeon’s apprentice took to verse-making; when he went to London to walk the hospitals, he was introduced by the Clarkes to their literary friends there, and knew Leigh Hunt, Hazlitt, Basil Montagu, Haydon, Shelley, and Godwin. In 1817 he brought out his first volume of verse and abandoned the profession of surgery, for which however, disagreeable though it was to him, he had shown aptitude and dexterity. His first volume contained the Epistles, which we now read amongst his collected poems; it had no success. But his friends saluted his genius with warm admiration and confidence, and in 1818 he published his Endymion. It was mercilessly treated by Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and by the Quarterly Review. Meanwhile Keats’s small fortune was melting away, and signs of disease began to show themselves in him. Nevertheless, in the next year or two he produced his best poems; but his health and circumstances did not mend, while a passionate attachment, with which he was at this time seized, added another cause of agitation. The seeds of consumption were in him, he had the temperament of the consumptive; his poetry fevered him, his embarrassments fretted him, his love-passion shook him to pieces. He had an attack of bleeding from the lungs; he got better, but it returned; change of climate was recommended, and after publishing his third volume, Lamia, Labella, and other Poems, he sailed for Italy in September 1820, accompanied by his friend Severn. Italy could not restore him. He established himself at Rome with Severn, but in spite of the devoted care and kindness of this admirable friend, he rapidly grew worse, and on the 23rd of February, 1821, he died. He was twenty-five years old. John Keats was buried in the Protestant cemetery at Rome, and on his gravestone is the inscription which he himself told his friend to place there: Here lies one whose name was writ in water.]  1
 
POETRY, according to Milton’s famous saying, should be ‘simple, sensuous, impassioned.’ No one can question the eminency, in Keats’s poetry, of the quality of sensuousness. Keats as a poet is abundantly and enchantingly sensuous; the question with some people will be, whether he is anything else. Many things may be brought forward which seem to show him as under the fascination and sole dominion of sense, and desiring nothing better. There is the exclamation in one of his letters: ‘O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts!’ There is the thesis, in another, ‘that with a great Poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.’ There is Haydon’s story of him, how ‘he once covered his tongue and throat as far as he could reach with Cayenne pepper, in order to appreciate the delicious coldness of claret in all its glory—his own expression.’ One is not much surprised when Haydon further tells us, of the hero of such a story, that once for six weeks together he was hardly ever sober. ‘He had no decision of character,’ Haydon adds, ‘no object upon which to direct his great powers.’  2
  Character and self-control, the virtus verusque labor so necessary for every kind of greatness, and for the great artist, too, indispensable, appear to be wanting, certainly, to this Keats of Haydon’s portraiture. They are wanting also to the Keats of the Letters to Fanny Brawne. These letters make as unpleasing an impression as Haydon’s anecdotes. The editor of Haydon’s journals could not well omit what Haydon said of his friend, but for the publication of the Letters to Fanny Brawne I can see no good reason whatever. Their publication appears to me, I confess, inexcusable; they ought never to have been published. But published they are, and we have to take notice of them. Letters written when Keats was near his end, under the throttling and unmanning grasp of mortal disease, we will not judge. But here is a letter written some months before he was taken ill. It is printed just as Keats wrote it.
          ‘You have absorb’d me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving—I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you. I should be afraid to separate myself far from you. My sweet Fanny will your heart never change? My love, will it? I have no limit now to my love…. Your note came in just here. I cannot be happier away from you. ’Tis richer than an Argosy of Pearles. Do not threat me even in jest. I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion—I have shuddered at it. I shudder no more—I could be martyred for my Religion—Love is my religion—I could die for that. I could die for you. My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet. You have ravished me away by a Power I cannot resist; and yet I could resist till I saw you; and even since I have seen you I have endeavoured often “to reason against the reasons of my Love.” I can do that no more—the pain would be too great. My love is selfish. I cannot breathe without you.’
  3
  A man who writes love-letters in this strain is probably predestined, one may observe, to misfortune in his love-affairs; but that is nothing. The complete enervation of the writer is the real point for remark. We have the tone, or rather the entire want of tone, the abandonment of all reticence and all dignity, of the merely sensuous man, of the man who ‘is passion’s slave.’ Nay, we have them in such wise that one is tempted to speak even as Blackwood or the Quarterly were in the old days wont to speak; one is tempted to say that Keats’s love-letter is the love-letter of a surgeon’s apprentice. It has in its relaxed self-abandonment something underbred and ignoble, as of a youth ill brought up, without the training which teaches us that we must put some constraint upon our feelings and upon the expression of them. It is the sort of love-letter of a surgeon’s apprentice which one might hear read out in a breach of promise case, or in the Divorce Court. The sensuous man speaks in it, and the sensuous man of a badly bred and badly trained sort. That many who are themselves, also, badly bred and badly trained should enjoy it, and should even think it a beautiful and characteristic production of him whom they call their ‘lovely and beloved Keats,’ does not make it better. These are the admirers whose pawing and fondness does not good but harm to the fame of Keats; who concentrate attention upon what in him is least wholesome and most questionable; who worship him, and would have the world worship him too, as the poet of
 ‘Light feet, dark violet eyes, and parted hair,
Soft dimpled hands, white neck, and creamy breast.’
This sensuous strain Keats had, and a man of his poetic powers could not, whatever his strain, but show his talent in it. But he has something more, and something better. We who believe Keats to have been by his promise, at any rate, if not fully by his performance, one of the very greatest of English poets, and who believe also that a merely sensuous man cannot either by promise or by performance be a very great poet, because poetry interprets life, and so large and noble a part of life is outside of such a man’s ken,—we cannot but look for signs in him of something more than sensuousness, for signs of character and virtue. And indeed the elements of high character Keats undoubtedly has, and the effort to develop them; the effort is frustrated and cut short by misfortune, and disease, and time, but for the due understanding of Keats’s worth the recognition of this effort, and of the elements on which it worked, is necessary.
  4
  Lord Houghton, who praises very discriminatingly the poetry of Keats, has on his character, also, a remark full of discrimination. He says: ‘The faults of Keats’s disposition were precisely the contrary of those attributed to him by common opinion.’ And he gives a letter written after the death of Keats by his brother George, in which the writer, speaking of the fantastic Johnny Keats invented for common opinion by Lord Byron and by the reviewers, declares indignantly: ‘John was the very soul of manliness and courage, and as much like the Holy Ghost as Johnny Keats.’ It is important to note this testimony, and to look well for whatever illustrates and confirms it.  5
  Great weight is laid by Lord Houghton on such a direct profession of faith as the following. ‘That sort of probity and disinterestedness,’ Keats writes to his brothers, ‘which such men as Bailey possess, does hold and grasp the tip-top of any spiritual honours that can be paid to anything in this world.’ Lord Houghton says that ‘never have words more effectively expressed the conviction of the superiority of virtue above beauty than those.’ But merely to make a profession of faith of the kind here made by Keats is not difficult; what we should rather look for, is some evidence of the instinct for character, for virtue, passing into the man’s life, passing into his work.  6
  Signs of virtue, in the true and large sense of the word, the instinct for virtue passing into the life of Keats and strengthening it, I find in the admirable wisdom and temper of what he says to his friend Bailey on the occasion of a quarrel between Reynolds and Haydon:—
          ‘Things have happened lately of great perplexity; you must have heard of them; Reynolds and Haydon retorting and recriminating, and parting for ever. The same thing has happened between Haydon and Hunt. It is unfortunate; men should bear with each other; there lives not the man who may not be cut up, aye, lashed to pieces, on his weakest side. The best of men have but a portion of good in them…. The sure way, Bailey, is first to know a man’s faults, and then be passive. If, after that, he insensibly draws you towards him, then you have no power to break the link. Before I felt interested in either Reynolds or Haydon, I was well read in their faults; yet knowing them, I have been cementing gradually with both. I have an affection for them both, for reasons almost opposite; and to both must I of necessity cling, supported always by the hope that when a little time, a few years, shall have tried me more fully in their esteem, I may be able to bring them together.’
  7
  Butler has well said that ‘endeavouring to enforce upon our own minds a practical sense of virtue, or to beget in others that practical sense of it which a man really has himself, is a virtuous act.’ And such an ‘endeavouring’ is that of Keats in those words written to Bailey. It is more than mere words; so justly thought and so discreetly urged as it is, it rises to the height of a virtuous act. It is proof of character.  8
  The same thing may be said of some words written to his friend Charles Brown, whose kindness, willingly exerted whenever Keats chose to avail himself of it, seemed to free him from any pressing necessity of earning his own living. Keats felt that he must not allow this state of things to continue. He determined to set himself to ‘fag on as others do’ at periodical literature, rather than to endanger his independence and his self-respect; and he writes to Brown:—
          ‘I had got into a habit of mind of looking towards you as a help in all difficulties. This very habit would be the parent of idleness and difficulties. You will see it is a duty I owe to myself to break the neck of it. I do nothing for my subsistence—make no exertion. At the end of another year you shall applaud me, not for verses, but for conduct.’
  9
  He had not, alas, another year of health before him when he announced that wholesome resolve; it then wanted but six months of the day of his fatal attack. But in the brief time allowed to him he did what he could to keep his word.  10
  What character, again, what strength and clearness of judgment, in his criticism of his own productions, of the public, and of ‘the literary circles’! His words after the severe reviews of Endymion have often been quoted; they cannot be quoted too often:—
          ‘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 criticism has given me pain without comparison beyond what Blackwood or the Quarterly could possibly inflict; and also, when I feel I am right, no external praise can give me such a glow as my own solitary reperception and ratification of what is fine. J. S. is perfectly right in regard to the “slip-shod Endymion.” That it is so is no fault of mine. No! though it may sound a little paradoxical, it is as good as I had power to make it by myself.’
  11
  And again, as if he had foreseen certain of his admires gushing over him, and was resolved to disengage his responsibility:—
          ‘I have done nothing, except for the amusement of a few people who refine upon their feelings till anything in the un-understandable way will go down with them. I have no cause to complain, because I am certain anything really fine will in these days be felt. I have no doubt that if I had written Othello I should have been cheered. I shall go on with patience.’
  12
  Young poets almost inevitably over-rate what they call ‘the might of poesy,’ and its power over the world which now is. Keats is not a dupe on this matter any more than he is a dupe about the merit of his own performances:—
          ‘I have no trust whatever in poetry. I don’t wonder at it; the marvel is to me how people read so much of it.’
  13
  His attitude towards the public is that of a strong man, not of a weakling avid of praise, and made to ‘be snuff’d out by an article’:—
          ‘I shall ever consider the public as debtors to me for verses, not myself to them for admiration, which I can do without.’
  14
  And again, in a passage where one may perhaps find fault with the capital letters, but surely with nothing else:—
          ‘I have not the slightest feel of humility towards the public or to anything in existence but the Eternal Being, the Principle of Beauty, and the Memory of great Men…. I would be subdued before my friends, and thank them for subduing me; but among multitudes of men I have no feel of stooping; I hate the idea of humility to them. I never wrote one single line of poetry with the least shadow of thought about their opinion. Forgive me for vexing you, but it eases me to tell you: I could not live without the love of my friends; I would jump down Etna for any great public good—but I hate a mawkish popularity. I cannot be subdued before them. My glory would be to daunt and dazzle the thousand jabberers about pictures and books.’
  15
  Against these artistic and literary ‘jabberers,’ amongst whom Byron fancied Keats, probably, to be always living, flattering them and flattered by them, he has yet another outburst:—
          ‘Just so much as I am humbled by the genius above my grasp, am I exalted and look with hate and contempt upon the literary world. Who could wish to be among the common-place crowd of the little famous, who are each individually lost in a throng made up of themselves?’
And he loves Fanny Brawne the more, he tells her, because he believes that she has liked him for his own sake and for nothing else. ‘I have met with women who I really think would like to be married to a Poem and to be given away by a Novel.’
  16
  There is a tone of too much bitterness and defiance in all this, a tone which he with great propriety subdued and corrected when he wrote his beautiful preface to Endymion. But the thing to be seized is, that Keats had flint and iron in him, that he had character; that he was, as his brother George says, ‘as much like the Holy Ghost as Johnny Keats,’—as that imagined sensuous weakling, the delight of the literary circles of Hampstead.  17
  It is a pity that Byron, who so misconceived Keats, should never have known how shrewdly Keats, on the other hand, had characterised him, as ‘a fine thing’ in the sphere of ‘the worldly, theatrical, and pantomimical.’ But indeed nothing is more remarkable in Keats than his clear-sightedness, his lucidity; and lucidity is in itself akin to character and to high and severe work. In spite, therefore, of his overpowering feeling for beauty, in spite of his sensuousness, in spite of his facility, in spite of his gift of expression, Keats could say resolutely:—
          ‘I know nothing, I have read nothing; and I mean to follow Solomon’s directions: “Get learning, get understanding.” There is but one way for me. The road lies through application study, and thought. I will pursue it.’
  18
  And of Milton, instead of resting in Milton’s incomparable phrases, Keats could say, although indeed all the while ‘looking upon fine phrases,’ as he himself tells us, ‘like a lover’:—
          ‘Milton had an exquisite passion for what is properly, in the sense of ease and pleasure, poetical luxury; and with that, it appears to me, he would fain have been content, if he could, so doing, preserve his self-respect and feeling of duty performed; but there was working in him, as it were, that same sort of thing which operates in the great world to the end of a prophecy’s being accomplished. Therefore he devoted himself rather to the ardours than the pleasures of song, solacing himself at intervals with cups of old wine.’
  19
  In his own poetry, too, Keats felt that place must be found for ‘the ardours rather than the pleasures of song,’ although he was aware that he was not yet ripe for it:—
           ‘But my flag is not unfurl’d
On the Admiral-staff, and to philosophise
I dare not yet.’
  20
  Even in his pursuit of ‘the pleasures of song,’ however, there is that stamp of high work which is akin to character, which is character passing into intellectual production. ‘The best sort of poetry—that,’ he truly says, ‘is all I care for, all I live for.’ It is curious to observe how this severe addiction of his to the best sort of poetry affects him with a certain coldness, as if the addiction had been to mathematics, towards those prime objects of a sensuous and passionate poet’s regard, love and women. He speaks of ‘the opinion I have formed of the generality of women, who appear to me as children to whom I would rather give a sugar-plum than my time.’ He confesses ‘a tendency to class women in my books with roses and sweetmeats—they never see themselves dominant’; and he can understand how the unpopularity of his poems may be in part due to ‘the offence which the ladies,’ not unnaturally, ‘take at him’ from this cause. Even to Fanny Brawne he can write ‘a flint-worded letter,’ when his ‘mind is heaped to the full’ with poetry:—
          ‘I know the generality of women would hate me for this; that I should have so unsoftened, so hard a mind as to forget them; forget the brightest realities for the dull imaginations of my own brain…. My heart seems now made of iron—I could not write a proper answer to an invitation to Idalia.’
  21
  The truth is that ‘the yearning passion for the Beautiful,’ which was with Keats, as he himself truly says, the master-passion, is not a passion of the sensuous or sentimental man, is not a passion of the sensuous or sentimental poet. It is an intellectual and spiritual passion. It is ‘connected and made one,’ as Keats declares that in his case it was, ‘with the ambition of the intellect.’ It is, as he again says, ‘the mighty abstract idea of Beauty in all things.’ And in his last days Keats wrote: ‘If I should die, I have left no immortal work behind me—nothing to make my friends proud of my memory; but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remembered.’ He has made himself remembered, and remembered as no merely sensuous poet could be; and he has done it by having ‘loved the principle of beauty in all things.’  22
  For to see things in their beauty is to see things in their truth, and Keats knew it. ‘What the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be Truth,’ he says in prose; and in immortal verse he has said the same thing:—
 ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
No, it is not all; but it is true, deeply true, and we have deep need to know it. And with beauty goes not only truth, joy goes with her also; and this too Keats saw and said, as in the famous first line of his Endymion it stands written:—
 ‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.’
  23
  It is no small thing to have so loved the principle of beauty as to perceive the necessary relation of beauty with truth, and of both with joy. Keats was a great spirit, and counts for far more than many even of his admirers suppose, because this just and high perception made itself clear to him. Therefore a dignity and a glory shed gleams over his life, and happiness, too, was not a stranger to it. ‘Nothing startles me beyond the moment,’ he says; ‘the setting sun will always set me to rights, or if a sparrow come before my window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.’ But he had terrible bafflers,—consuming disease and early death. ‘I think,’ he writes to Reynolds, ‘if I had a free and healthy and lasting organisation of heart, and lungs as strong as an ox’s, so as to be able to bear unhurt the shock of extreme thought and sensation without weariness, I could pass my life very nearly alone, though it should last eighty years. But I feel my body too weak to support me to the height; I am obliged continually to check myself, and be nothing.’ He had against him even more than this; he had against him the blind power which we call Fortune. ‘O that something fortunate,’ he cries in the closing months of his life, ‘had ever happened to me or my brothers!—then I might hope,—but despair is forced upon me as a habit.’ So baffled and so sorely tried,—while laden, at the same time, with a mighty formative thought requiring health, and many days, and favouring circumstances, for its adequate manifestation,—what wonder if the achievement of Keats be partial and incomplete?  24
  Nevertheless, let and hindered as he was, and with a short term and imperfect experience,—‘young,’ as he says of himself, ‘and writing at random, straining after particles of light in the midst of a great darkness, without knowing the bearing of any one assertion, of any one opinion,’—notwithstanding all this, by virtue of his feeling for beauty and of his perception of the vital connexion of beauty with truth, Keats accomplished so much in poetry, that in one of the two great modes by which poetry interprets, in the faculty of naturalistic interpretation, in what we call natural magic, he ranks with Shakespeare. ‘The tongue of Kean,’ he says in an admirable criticism of that great actor and of his enchanting elocution, ‘the tongue of Kean must seem to have robbed the Hybla bees and left them honeyless. There is an indescribable gusto in his voice;—in Richard, “Be stirring with the lark to-morrow, gentle Norfolk!” comes from him as through the morning atmosphere towards which he yearns.’ This magic, this ‘indescribable gusto in the voice,’ Keats himself, too, exhibits in his poetic expression. No one else in English poetry, save Shakespeare, has in expression quite the fascinating felicity of Keats, his perfection of loveliness. ‘I think,’ he said humbly, ‘I shall be among the English poets after my death.’ He is; he is with Shakespeare.  25
  For the second great half of poetic interpretation, for that faculty of moral interpretation which is in Shakespeare, and is informed by him with the same power of beauty as his naturalistic interpretation, Keats was not ripe. For the architectonics of poetry, the faculty which presides at the evolution of works like the Agamemnon or Lear, he was not ripe. His Endymion, as he himself well saw, is a failure, and his Hyperion, fine things as it contains, is not a success. But in shorter things, where the matured power of moral interpretation, and the high architectonics which go with complete poetic development, are not required, he is perfect. The poems which follow prove it,—prove it far better by themselves than anything which can be said about them will prove it. Therefore I have chiefly spoken here of the man, and of the elements in him which explain the production of such work. Shakespearian work it is; not imitative, indeed, of Shakespeare, but Shakespearian, because its expression has that rounded perfection and felicity of loveliness of which Shakespeare is the great master. To show such work is to praise it. Let us now end by delighting ourselves with a fragment of it, too broken to find a place among the pieces which follow, but far too beautiful to be lost. It is a fragment of an ode for May-day. O might I, he cries to May, O might I
                         … ‘thy smiles
Seek as they once were sought, in Grecian isles,
By bards who died content on pleasant sward,
Leaving great verse unto a little clan!
O, give me their old vigour, and unheard
Save of the quiet primrose, and the span
            Of heaven, and few ears,
Rounded by thee, my song should die away,
            Content as theirs,
Rich in the simple worship of a day!’
  26
 
 
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