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‘Orion’ Home on Keats

‘Orion’ Home on Keats

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THE CRITICAL HERITAGE 285



the errors in Endymion and his earlier poems; and to ‘half-finished’ as only

applicable (we believe this is correct?) to Hyperion, there can be no sort of doubt

of the influence. But there is this peculiarity attached to it, one which stands

alone in the history, certainly of all modern influences. It is, that he has not had a

single mechanical imitator. There is an excellent reason for this. A mechanical

imitation of style, or by choice of similar subjects, would not bear any resemblance

to Keats; no one would recognize the intended imitation. When somebody

expressed his surprise to Shelley, that Keats, who was not very conversant with

the Greek language, could write so finely and classically of their gods and

goddesses, Shelley replied ‘He was a Greek.’… The writings of Keats are

saturated and instinct with the purest inspiration of poetry; his mythology is full

of ideal passion; his divinities are drawn as from ‘the life,’ nay, from their inner

and essential life; his enchantments and his ‘faery land’ are exactly like the most

lovely and truthful records of one who has been a dweller among them and a

participator in their mysteries; and his descriptions of pastoral scenery, are often

as natural and simple as they are romantic, and tinged all over with ideal beauty.

Admitting all the faults, errors in taste, and want of design in his earliest works,

but laying our hands with full faith upon his ‘Lamia’, ‘Isabella,’ ‘The Eve of St

Agnes,’ the four ‘Odes’ in the same collection, and the fragment of Hyperion, we

unhesitatingly say that there is no poet, ancient or modern, upon whom the title of

‘Divine’ can be more appropriately conferred than upon Keats. While the

‘Satanic School’ was in its glory, it is no great wonder that Wordsworth should

have been a constant laughing-stock, and Keats an object for contemptuous

dismissal to the tomb. It must, however, be added that the marked neglect of the

public towards the latter has continued down to the present day. The pure Greek

wine of Keats has been set aside for the thin gruel of Kirk White. But if there be

faith in the pure Ideal, and in the progress of intelligence and refinement, the

ultimate recognition of Keats by the public will certainly follow that of the ‘fit

audience’ which he will ever continue to possess. Of all the numerous imitators

of Lord Byron, not one now remains. And this may be mentioned as a quiet

commentary upon his supercilious fling at the superior genius of John Keats.

How it should happen that the influencer of so many spirits of the present time

should himself have been left to the ecstatic solitude of his own charmed shores

and ‘faery lands forlorn,’ while those very spirits have each and all of them made

some passage for themselves into the public mind, is one of those problems

which neither the common fate of originators, the obduracy or caprice of the

public, the clinging poison of bygone malice and depreciation, nor the want of

sufficient introduction and championship on the part of living appreciators, can

furnish a perfectly satisfactory solution. Such, however, is the fact at this very

time.

We have said that Keats has had no imitators; of what nature, then, has been

his influence upon the poetry of the present day? It has been spiritual in its

ideality; it has been classical in its revivification of the forms and images of the

antique, which he inspired with a new soul; it has been romantic in its spells, and



286 KEATS



dreams, and legendary association; and it has been pastoral in its fresh gatherings

from the wild forests and fields, and as little as possible from the garden, and

never from the hot-house and the flower-shows. His imagination identified itself

with the essences of things, poetical in themselves, and he acted as the

interpreter of all this, by words which eminently possess the prerogative of

expressive form and colour, and have a sense of their own by which to make

themselves understood. Who shall imitate these peculiarities of genius? It is not

possible. But kindred spirits will always recognize the voice from other spheres,

will hail the Vision, and the faculty divine,’ come from whom it may, will have

their own inherent impulses quickened to look into their own hearts, and abroad

upon nature and mankind, and to work out the purposes of their souls.

How much of the peculiar genius of Keats is visible in Alfred Tennyson, must

have been apparent to all those who are familiar with their writings; and yet it is

equally certain that Tennyson, so far from being an imitator of any one, is

undoubtedly one of the most original poets that ever lived.



53.

An American dialogue on Keats

1845



Extract from J.R.Lowell’s Conversations on Some of the Old Poets,

Cambridge, Mass., 1845, 101–17.

James Russell Lowell (1819–91), poet, essayist, and diplomat,

became Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard in 1855, and was

Ambassador to England in the 1880s. Lowell’s eventual eminence

was such that his approval gave Keats the same sort of official

cachet in America that Milnes’s Life gave in England. His criticism

is more elegant than profound; but here and in No. 66 he stresses the

freshness and Tightness of Keats’s use of language. ‘Keats

rediscovered the delight and wonder that lay enchanted in the

dictionary.’ This dialogue was re-cast from a version in The Boston

Miscellany (1842).

Philip

Keats and Tennyson are both masters of description, but Keats had the finer ear

for all the nice analogies and suggestions of sound, while his eye had an equally

instinctive rectitude of perception in color. Tennyson’s epithets suggest a silent

picture; Keats’ the very thing itself, with its sound or stillness…. But if

Tennyson’s mind be more sensitive, Keats’ is grander and of a larger grasp. It

may be a generation or two before there comes another so delicate thinker and

speaker as Tennyson; but it will be centuries before another nature so

spontaneously noble and majestic as that of Keats, and so tender and merciful,

too, is embodied. What a scene of despair is that of his, where Saturn finds the

vanquished Titans!

Scarce images of life, one here, one there,

Lay vast and edgeways, like a dismal cirque

Of Druid-stones upon a forlorn moor,

When the chill rain begins at shut of eve,

In dull November——



288 THE CRITICAL HERITAGE



And what can be more perfect than this?

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.

John

The world is not yet aware of the wonderful merit of Keats. Men have

squabbled about Chatterton, and written lives of Kirke White, while they have

treated with contempt the rival, and, I will dare to say, the sometimes superior, of

Milton. The critics gravely and with reverence hold up their bit of smoked glass

between you and the lantern at a kite’s tail, and bid you behold the sun,

undazzled; but their ceremonious fooleries will one day be as ridiculous as those

of the Tahitian priests. Keats can afford to wait, and he will yet be sacred to the

hearts of all those who love the triumphs and ovations of our noble mothertongue.

Philip



I must please myself with one more quotation from his Hyperion. After the

murmur among the Titans at Saturn’s entrance has ceased,

Saturn’s voice therefrom

Grew up like organ, that begins anew

Its strain, when other harmonies stopped short,

Leave the dinned air vibrating silverly.

Could sound and sense harmonize more fitly? In reading it, the voice flows on at

first smoothly and equably. At the end of the third verse, it pauses abruptly in

spite of itself, and in the last vibrates and wavers in accordance with the meaning.

You see the art with which the word Vibrating’ is placed so as to prevent you

from reading the verse monotonously. Among the ancient poets, I can detect

none of the nice feeling of language which distinguishes many of our own….

I fear that I have spoken too harshly of the letter 5. It often adds much to the

expression of a verse,—in the word ‘silence,’ for example. It is only by the

contrast of some slight noise that we can appreciate silence. A solitude is never

so lonely as when the wind sighs through it. This is suggested to the ear, and so

to the imagination, by the sound of the word. Keats, therefore, did well in

bringing together such a cohort of s-s in the opening of his Hyperion:



KEATS 289



Deep in the shady stillness of a vale,

Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,

Far from the fiery noon and eve’s one star,

Sat gray-haired Saturn, silent as a stone,

Still as the silence round about his lair.

Do you not feel it? The whole passage, for some distance farther on, is full of

this sighing melody, and so impresses me with its utter loneliness and desertion,

that, after repeating it to myself when alone, I am relieved to hear the

companionable flicker of the fire, or the tinkling fall of an ember.



54.

Gilfillan on Keats

1845, 1850, 1854



The Revd. George Gilfillan (1813–78), whose literary activities were

tireless, was a Scottish protégé of ‘Christopher North’. The first of

his ‘Portraits’ appeared in the Dumfries Herald in 1844. His essay on

Keats, (a), is given complete except for the first seven pages, which

have argued that men of genius are not, as commonly supposed,

always afflicted by indolence, poverty, or unhappiness.

(a) Extract from article ‘John Keats’: ‘Not unbefitting are these remarks, for at

least the sake of contrast, to introducing to us John Keats, the hapless

apothecary’s boy. Seldom were circumstances less propitious to the growth of

genius than those in which this fine spirit was reared. Michael Bruce had

Lochleven and its romantic shores to awaken his vein of verse: Chatterton the

inspiring environs of Bristol; Kirke White the placid richness of

Nottinghamshire; Keats nothing but the scenery of his own soul! Transient and

occasional were his glimpses of nature, but what a load of impression did he

carry away with him! A mere boy, he seems an old acquaintance of nature, as if

he had seen and studied her features in an antenatal state. His sense of beauty has

been well called a disease. Whether, as De Quincey says of Wordsworth, his eye

had more than a common degree of organic pleasure from the shows of earth and

air, we cannot tell; but to us it appears as if the hue of the tulip were richer and more

luscious, and the colour of the “gold cloud metropolitan” more intensely

lustrous, and the smell of the bean-flower more arrowy in its odour, and the note

of the nightingale more suggestive and sweet, and the shade of the pines

productive of a diviner horror to him than to others, even of the inspired sons and

daughters of mankind. We find scarcely any where but in his verse and in the

minor poems of Milton such lingering luxury of descriptive beauty—such a

literal, yet ideal translation of nature. Scarcely second to this painful and

torturing sense of the beautiful, which detained and rivetted his young soul to all

that was lovely in idealism or reality, was his feeling of the most Eschylean

shape of the sublime. He contrived, even through the thin and scraggy pipe of

translation, to suck out the genuine spirit of the Grecian drama. The rough

mantle, with its studs of gold, which the author of Prometheus Vinctus wore so



KEATS 291



proudly, fell on, without crushing, the Cockney boy! And then, a glorious truant,

he turned aside into the heart of the wilderness of the Titans, and saw here

Prometheus writhing on his rock, and yonder, in the shady sadness of a

vale,“gray-haired Saturn, quiet as a stone;” below “Coeus, and Gyges, and

Briareus, Typhon, and Dolor, and Porphyrion, with many more, the brawniest in

assault, pent up in regions of laborious breath;” and above “blazing Hyperion on

his orbed throne;” here Thea, leaning over the discrowned deity, with “parted

lips and posture motionless, like natural sculpture in cathedral cavern;” and there

Apollo, in the pangs of his divine birth, as “knowledge enormous makes a god of

him.” And seeing all this, and shrieking out his last word, “celestial,” the pale

youth died.

Hyperion is the greatest of poetical Torsos. “Left untold,” like Cambuscan1 and

Christabel, and Burns’ speech of Liberty, it is perhaps better that it remains a

fragment. Had only the two first Books of Paradise Lost come down to us, we

question if they had not impressed us with a higher opinion of the author’s

powers than the completed work. Such magnificent mutilations are regarded with

a complex emotion, composed of admiration, expectation, and regret. Short and

sustained, they seldom tire or disappoint. And the poem itself is so bold in its

conception, so true to the genuine classical spirit, so austerely statuesque in its

still or moving figures, so antique to awfulness in its spirit, and, above all,

indicates a rise so rapid and so great from his other works, as from Richmondhill to an Alp, that those who love not Keats are compelled to admire Hyperion.

It is, says Byron, “as sublime as Eschylus.”

Endymion is the dyspeptic dream of a boy of genius. Steeped in Spenserian

imagination, it is, on the other hand, stuffed with affectations and poornesses,

and pure sillyisms of fancy, thought and language, almost incredible. Yet is there

a beseeching innocence in its very weakness, which, while the imagination and

beauty of parts ought to have commanded the admiration, might have awakened

the pity of the harshest critic. Like a boy lost in a wide wood, who now shrieks

for terror under the hollow shade, now shouts for joy as he gains an eminence

whence he commands a far view over the surging tree-tops, now weeps aloud as

he loses a path which promised to conduct him homewards, or as he stumbles

into a morass, now plucks a wild flower or a bunch of blae-berries, and now

defiles his hands by the merest fungus—so is Keats led astray through the

tangled woodland of the Grecian Mythology, and Endymion is precisely such a

“boy’s progress.” Brutal the beadle, who, meeting such a bewildered child,

should, notwithstanding the eloquence of his bright eyes, profuse and beauteous

hair, bleeding hands and trickling tears, avenge his wanderings by the lash. And

surely cruel the Quarterly critic, who stripped, and striped, and cut, and branded

the muse’s Son.



1



Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale.



292 THE CRITICAL HERITAGE



“Isabella” is a versification of one of Boccacio’s finest stories; but on the simple

thread of the narrative Keats has suspended some of his own richest gems. The

story is that of two lovers who loved “not wisely but too well.” The brothers of

the maiden, seducing the youth away under the guise of a journey, kill and bury

him in the forest. Isabella, after long watching, and weeping, and uncertainty as

to his fate, is warned of it in a dream, and, repairing to the forest where her true

love lies, digs up his head, and hides it in a pot of sweet basil, over which she

prays and weeps out her heart incessantly. Her cruel kinsmen, finding out the

secret, remove the basil-pot, banish themselves, and their sister pines away. The

story is told with exquisite simplicity, pathos, and those quiet quaint touches so

characteristic of the author. Two expressions, instinct with poetry, cling to our

memories. They occur in the same stanza.

So the two brothers and their murdered man

Rode past fair Florence to where Arno’s stream

Gurgles through straitened banks.

——— Sick and wan

The brothers’ faces in the ford did seem—

Lorenzo’s flush with love—they passed the water

Into a forest quiet for the slaughter.

What an awful leap forward of imagination in the first line! Florence saw no gore

on Lorenzo’s garments as he rode by; but the guilty eye of the brothers, and the

purged eye of the poet, saw it all bedropped with gouts of blood—the deed

already done—the man murdered. No spectre bestriding spectre-steed, no fiend

mounted on black charger, joining a solitary traveller at twilight among trackless

woods, was ever such a terrible companion as to the two brothers and to us is the

murdered man—his own apparition. And then, how striking the contrast between

the wan, sick, corpse-like faces of the brothers and his, shining with the rose-hue

of love! They enter an old forest, not swinging its dark cones in the tempest, but

“quiet for the slaughter,” as if supernaturally hushed for the occasion, as if by a

special decree pre-pared and predestined to the silence of that hour, as if dumbly

sympathizing through all its red trunks and black rounded tops, with the “deed

without a name.”

Much more gorgeous in style, and colouring, and breathing a yet more

intensely poetical spirit, is “St Agnes’ Eve.” It is a dream within a dream. Its

every line wears couleur de rose. A curious feature of Keats’ mind was its

elegant effeminacy. No poet describes dress with more gust and beauty. Witness

his picture of Madeline kneeling at her devotions, and seeming, in the light of the

painted window, “a splendid angel, newly dressed, save wings, for heaven,” or

“trembling in her soft and chilly nest,” after having freed her hair from her

“wreathed pearls,” “unclasped her warmed jewels,” “loosened her fragrant

boddice,” and,



KEATS 293



by degrees,

Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees.

None save Keats, and Tennyson after him, has adventured on the delicate yet

lovely theme, the poetry of dress; a subject which, artificial as it is, is capable, in

chaste and tender hands, of the most imaginative treatment. Who, following in

their footsteps, shall write the rhymed history of dress, from the first reeking lionhide worn by a warrior of the infant world, down through the coloured skins of

the Picts, the flowing toga of the ancients, the “garb of old Gaul,” the turban of

the Turks, the picturesque attire of the American Indians, the gorgeous vestments

of God’s ancient people, the kilt, the trews, and the plaid of Caledonia, the

sandal or symar, or cloak, or shawl, or head-dress of various ages, to the greatcoat of the modern Briton, who, in the description of Cowper, is

An honest man, close buttoned to the chin,

Broad-cloth without, and a warm heart within.

The finest of Keats’ smaller pieces are, “Lines written on Chapman’s Homer,”

(the only translation which gives the savageism, if not the sublimity of Homer—

his wild beasts muzzling and maddening in their fleshy fury, and his heroes “redwat-shod,” and which, in its original folio, Charles Lamb is said once to have

kissed in his rapturous appreciation); the “Ode to a Nightingale,” or rather to its

voice, “singing of summer in full-throated ease;” the “Ode to a Grecian Urn,”

elegant as that “sylvan historian itself,” (what a sigh for eternity in its description

of the pair of pictured lovers, whom he congratulates

that ever thou wilt love, and she be fair;)

the “Ode to Autumn” “sitting careless on a granary floor,” “her hair soft-lifted by

the winnowing wind;” and the dewy sonnet beginning—

Happy is England, I could be content

To see no other verdure but its own.

In originality Keats has seldom been surpassed. His works “rise like an

exhalation,” His language had been formed on a false system; but, ere he died,

was clarifying itself from its more glaring faults, and becoming copious, clear,

and select. He seems to have been averse to all speculative thought, and his only

creed, we fear, was expressed in the words—

Beauty is truth,—truth beauty.



294 THE CRITICAL HERITAGE



His great defect lay in the want, not of a man-like soul or spirit, but of a man-like

constitution. His genius lay in his body like sun-fire in a dewdrop, at once

beautifying and burning it up. Griffin, the author of the Collegians, describes him

(in deep consumption the while) hanging over the fatal review in the Quarterly

as if fascinated, reading it again and again, sucking out every drop of the poison.

Had he but had the resolution, as we have known done in similar circumstances,

of dashing it against the wall, or kicking it into the fire! Even Percival Stockdale

could do this to The Edinburgh Review when it cut up his Lives of the English

Poets; and John Keats was worth many millions of him. But disappointment,

disease, deep love, and poverty, combined to unman him. Through his thin

materialism he “felt the daisies growing over him.” And in this lowly epitaph did

his soaring ambitions terminate:— “Here lies one whose name was writ in

water.” But why mourn over his fate when the lamentation of all hearts has been

already enshrined in the verse of “Alastor?” Let Adonais be at once his panegyric

and his mausoleum.’

[Quotes from stanzas 45–6 of Shelley’s Adonais.]

(A Gallery of Literary Portraits, 1845, 372–85.)

(b) ‘…the occasional languor, the luxury of descriptive beauty, the feminine tone, the

tender melancholy, the grand aspirations, per-petually checked and chilled by the access of

morbid weakness, and the mannerisms of style which distinguish Keats.’ (A Second

Gallery of Literary Portraits, 1850, 216.)

(c) ‘Keats…the purest specimen of the ideal—a ball of beautiful foam, “cut off from the

water,” and not adopted by the air…’ (Ibid. 284.)

(d) Gilfillan has been saying that Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound is not as good as

Aeschylus, and adds: ‘Nor has it the massive strength, the piledup gold and gems, the

barbaric but kingly magnificence of Keats’ Hyperion. (A Third Gallery of Literary

Portraits, 1854, 499.)



L



55.

De Quincey on Keats

1846, 1857



Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859) is best known for his Confessions

of an Opium-Eater (1821) and Recollections of the Lake Poets

(1834– 40). His rather febrile style and catty manner both influenced

later prose-writers, and he begins his discussion of Keats’s poetry by

asserting that Keats was not really interested in ‘the great moving

realities of life’. His first reaction to Keats’s language in Endymion

represents an irritably extreme case of the familiar ‘classical’

objections. Extract (a) runs from after the first three pages of the

article, which dismiss the story that Keats was killed by a review, to

the end. The footnote, (b), was added when the article was reprinted

eleven years later.

(a) Extract from signed article ‘Notes on Gilfillan’s “Gallery of Literary Portraits.”

John Keats’: ‘As a man, and viewed in relation to social objects, Keats was

nothing. It was as mere an affectation when he talked with apparent zeal of

liberty, or human rights, or human prospects, as is the hollow enthusiasm which

many people profess for music, or most poets for external nature. For these

things Keats fancied that he cared; but in reality he cared not at all. Upon them,

or any of their aspects, he had thought too little, and too indeterminately, to feel

for them as personal concerns. Whereas Shelley, from his earliest days, was

mastered and shaken by the great moving realities of life, as a prophet is by the

burden of wrath or of promise which he has been commissioned to reveal. Had

there been no such thing as literature, Keats would have dwindled into a cipher.

Shelley, in the same event, would hardly have lost one plume from his crest. It is

in relation to literature, and to the boundless questions as to the true and the false

arising out of literature and poetry, that Keats challenges a fluctuating interest;

sometimes an interest of strong disgust, sometimes of deep admiration. There is

not, I believe, a case on record throughout European literature, where feelings so

repulsive of each other have centred in the same individual. The very

midsummer madness of affectation, of false vapoury sentiment, and of fantastic

effeminacy, seemed to me combined in Keats’s Endymion, when I first saw it



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