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Shelley, Keats and Tennyson compared

Shelley, Keats and Tennyson compared

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A tale of passionate change divinely taught,

Which in their winged dance unconscious genii wrought.

Truth and action may be thus emblemed; but beauty is a thing of shape and of

colour, not of light merely, and rest is essential to it. That mystic rapidity of

interwoven thought, in which Shelley exulted, was foreign to the deeper

temperament of Keats. One of his canons of poetry was, that ‘its touches of

beauty should never be half-way, thereby making the reader breathless, instead

of content. The rise, the progress, the setting of imagery, should, like the sun,

come naturally to the poet, shine over him, and set soberly, although in

magnificence, leaving him in the luxury of twilight.’ He disliked all poetical

surprises, and affirmed that poetry ‘should strike the reader as a wording of his

own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.’ Shelley’s genius, like

the eagle he describes,

Runs down the slanted sunlight of the dawn.

But, beauty moves ever in curved lines, like the celestial bodies, and even in

movement simulates rest. Beauty was the adornment of Shelley’s poetry; it was

the very essence of Keats’s. There is in his poetry not only a constant enjoyment

of the beautiful,—there is a thirst for it never to be satisfied, of which we are

reminded by his portrait. Shelley admired the beautiful, Keats was absorbed in it;

and admired it no more than an infant admires the mother at whose breast he

feeds. That deep absorption excluded all consciousness of self,—nay, every

intrusion of alien thought; and while the genius of others, too often like a doublereflecting crystal, returns a twofold image, that poetic vision which day by day

grew clearer before Keats was an image of beauty only, whole and unbroken.

There is a peculiar significance in the expression, ‘a child of song,’ as applied to

him. Not only his outward susceptibilities retained throughout the freshness of

infancy, but his whole nature possessed that integrity which belongs but to

childhood, or to the purest and most energetic genius. When the poetic mood was

not on him, though his heart was full of manly courage, there was much of a

child’s waywardness, want of self-command, and inexperienced weakness in his

nature. His poetry is never juvenile. It is either the stammer of the child or the

‘large utterance of the early gods.’

Keats possessed eminently the rare gift of invention—as is proved by the

narrative poems he has left behind. He had also, though without Shelley’s

constructive skill as to the architecture of sentences, a depth, significance, and

power of diction, which even the imitational affectation to be found in his

earliest productions, could not disguise. He instinctively selects the words which

exhibit the more characteristic qualities of the objects described. The most

remarkable property of his poetry, however, is the degree in which it combines

the sensuous with the ideal. The sensuousness of Keats’s poetry might have


degenerated into the sensual, but for the ideality that exalted it,—a union which

existed in consequence of a connexion not less intimate between his sensitive

temperament and his wide imagination. Perhaps we have had no other instance

of a bodily constitution so poetical. With him all things were more or less

sensational; his mental faculties being, as it were, extended throughout the

sensitive part of his nature—as the sense of sight, according to the theory of the

Mesmerists, is diffused throughout the body on some occasions of unusual

excitement. His body seemed to think; and, on the other hand, he sometimes

appears hardly to have known whether he possessed aught but body. His whole

nature partook of a sensational character in this respect, namely, that every

thought and sentiment came upon him with the suddenness, and appealed to him

with the reality of a sensation. It is not the lowest only, but also the loftiest part of

our being to which this character of unconsciousness and immediateness

belongs. Intuitions and aspirations are spiritual sensations; while the physical

perceptions and appetites are bodily intuitions. Instinct itself is but a lower form

of inspiration; and the highest virtue becomes a spiritual instinct. It was in the

intermediate part of our nature that Keats had but a small part. His mind had little

affinity with whatever belonged to the region of the merely probable. To his

heart, kindly as he was, everything in the outer world seemed foreign, except

that which for the time engrossed it. His nature was Epicurean at one side, Platonist

at the other—and both by irresistible instinct. The Aristotelian definition, the

Stoical dogma, the Academical disputation, were to him all alike unmeaning. His

poetic gift was not a separate faculty which he could exercise or restrain as he

pleased, and direct to whatever object he chose. It was when ‘by pre-dominance

of thought oppressed’ that there fell on him that still, poetic vision of truth and

beauty which only thus truly comes. The ‘burden’ of his inspiration came to him

‘in leni aurâ,’ like the visits of the gods; yet his fragile nature bent before it like a

reed; it was not shaken or disturbed, but wielded by it wholly.

To the sluggish temperaments of ordinary men excitement is pleasure. The

fervour of Keats preyed upon him with a pain from which Shelley was protected

by a mercurial mobility; and it was with the languor of rest that Keats associated

the idea of enjoyment. How much is implied in this description of exhaustion!

‘Pleasure has no show of enticement, and Pain no unbearable frown; neither

Poetry, nor Ambition, nor Love have any alertness of countenance; as they pass

me by they seem rather like three figures on a Greek vase—two men and a

woman, whom no one but myself could distinguish in their disguisement. This is

the only happiness; and is a rare instance of advantage in the body overcoming

the mind.’ (P. 264. vol. i.) A nobler relief was afforded to him by that versatility

which made him live in the objects around him. It is thus that he writes:—‘I

scarcely remember counting on any happiness. I look not for it, if it be not in the

present hour. Nothing startles me beyond the moment. The setting sun will

always set me to rights; or if a sparrow were before my window, I take part in its

existence, and pick with it, about the gravel.’ (P. 67. vol. i.) Elsewhere he speaks

thus of that form of poetic genius which belonged to him, and which he


contradistinguishes from the ‘egotistical sublime.’ ‘It has no self. It is every thing

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.’ (P. 221. vol. i.) In this passage, as

elsewhere, he seems to confound versatility with the absence of personal

character. That versatility of imagination is however by no means incompatible

with depth of nature and tenacity of purpose we have already observed; and our

opinion is confirmed by a remark of Mr Milnes, whose life of Keats, from which

we have so largely quoted, is enriched with many pieces of admirable criticism.

Keats’s versatility showed itself, like Mr Tennyson’s, not only in the dramatic

skill with which he realised various and alien forms of existence, but also, though

to a lesser degree, in the fact that the character of his poetry varied according to

the model he had been studying. In Endymion he reminds us of Chaucer and

Spenser; in Hyperion of Milton; in his ‘Cap and Bells’ of Ariosto; and in his

drama, the last act of which is very fine, of Ford. Mr Milnes remarks, with

reference to the last two works, that Keats’s occasional resemblance to other

poets, though it proves that his genius was still in a growing state, in no degree

detracts from his originality. He did not imitate others, Mr Milnes observes, so

much as emulate them; and no matter whom he may resemble, he is still always


The character of Keats’s intellect corresponded well with his large imagination

and versatile temperament. He had not Mr Shelley’s various and sleepless

faculties, but he had the larger mind. Keats could neither form systems nor

dispute about them; though germs of deep and original thought are to be found

scattered in his most careless letters. The two friends used sometimes to contend

as to the relative worth of truth and of beauty. Beauty is the visible embodiment

of a certain species of truth; and it was with that species that the mind of Keats,

which always worked in and through the sensibilities, held conscious relations.

He fancied that he had no access to philosophy, because he was averse to

definitions and dogmas, and sometimes saw glimpses of truth in adverse

systems. His mind had itself much of that ‘negative capability’ which he

remarked on as a large part of Shakspeare’s greatness, and which he described as

a power ‘of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable

reaching after fact and reason.’ (P. 93. vol. i.) There is assuredly such a thing as

philosophical doubt, as well as of philosophical belief: it is the doubt which

belongs to the mind, not to the will ; to which we are not drawn by love of

singularity, and from which we are not scared by nervous tremours; the doubt

which is not the denial of any thing, so much as the proving of all things; the

doubt of one who would rather walk in mystery than in false lights, who waits

that he may win, and who prefers the broken fragments of truth to the imposing

completeness of a delusion. Such is that uncertainty of a large mind, which a

small mind cannot understand; and such no doubt was, in part, that of Keats, who

was fond of saying that ‘every point of thought is the centre of an intellectual

world.’ The passive part of intellect, the powers of susceptibility and


appreciation, Keats possessed to an almost infinite degree: but in this respect his

mind appears to have been cast in a feminine mould; and that masculine energy

which Shakspeare combined with a susceptive temperament unfathomably deep,

in him either existed deficiently, or had not had time for its development.

If we turn from the poet to the man, from the works to the life, the retrospect is

less painful in the case of Keats than of Shelley. He also suffered from ill-health,

and from a temperament which, when its fine edge had to encounter the jars of

life, was Subject to a morbid despondency: but he had many sources of

enjoyment, and his power of enjoyment was extraordinary. His disposition,

which was not only sweet and simple, but tolerant and kindly, procured and

preserved for him many friends. It has been commonly supposed that adverse

criticism had wounded him deeply: but the charge receives a complete refutation

from a letter written on the occasion referred to. In it he says, ‘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…. I will write independently. I have

written independently without judgment. I may write independently, and with

judgment, hereafter. The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a

man…. I was never afraid of failure/

There are, however, trials in the world from which the most imaginative cannot

escape; and which are more real than those which self-love alone can make

important to us. Keats’s sensibility amounted to disease. ‘I would reject,’ he

writes, ‘a Petrarchal coronation—on account of my dying day—and because

women have cancers!’ A few months later, after visiting the house of Burns, he

wrote thus,—‘His misery is a dead weight on the nimbleness of one’s quill: I

tried to forget it…it won’t do…. We can see, horribly clear, in the works of such

a man, his whole life, as if we were God’s spies.’ (P. 171.) It was this extreme

sensibility, not less than his ideal tendencies, which made him shrink with

prescient fear from the world of actual things. Reality frowned above him like a

cliff seen by a man in a nightmare dream. It fell on him at last! The most

interesting of all his letters is that to his brother (P. 224. vol. i.), in which he, with

little anticipation of results, describes his first meeting with the Oriental beauty

who soon after became the object of his passion. In love he had always been, in

one sense: and personal love was but the devotion to that in a concentrated form

which he had previously and more safely loved as a thing scattered and diffused.

He loved and he won; but death cheated him of the prize. Tragical indeed were

his sufferings during the months of his decline. In leaving life he lost what can

never be known by the multi-tudes who but half live: and poetry at least could

assuredly have presented him but in scant measure with the consolations which

the Epicurean can dispense with most easily, but which are needed most by those

whose natures are most spiritual, and whose thirst after immortality is strongest.

Let us not, however, intrude into what we know not. In many things we are

allowed to rejoice with him. His life had been one long revel. ‘The open sky,’ he

writes to a friend, ‘sits upon our senses like a sapphire crown: the air is our robe

of state; the earth is our throne; and the sea a mighty minstrel playing before it!’


Less a human being than an Imagination embodied, he passed, ‘like a new-born

spirit,’ over a world that for him ever retained the dew of the morning; and

bathing in all its freshest joys he partook but little of its stain.

Shelley and Keats remained with us only long enough to let us know how

much we have lost—

We have beheld these lights but not possessed them.

The genius of the poet whose latest work we have discussed at the beginning of

this paper has been more justly appreciated than that of either of them: But it will

now probably be asked to which of the two great schools of English poetry

illustrated by us he is to be referred? The answer to that question is not easy, for

in truth he has much in common with both. His earlier poems might sometimes be

classed in the same category with those of Shelley and Keats: For, the three have

in common an ardent temperament, a versatile imagination, and an admirable

power of embodying the classical; but in other respects they differ widely.

Tennyson has indeed, like Keats, with whom he has most in common, a profound

sense of the beautiful, a calm and often soft intensity, a certain voluptuousness in

style, that reminds us of the Venetian school of painting, and a marvellous depth

and affluence of diction—but here the resemblance ends. We do not yet observe

in his works, to the same degree, that union of strength with lightness and

freedom of touch, which, like the unerring but unlaboured handling of a great

master, characterised Keats’s latest works. On the other hand, Tennyson has

greater variety. Wide indeed is his domain—extending as it does from that of

Keats, whose chief characteristic was ideal beauty, to that of Burns, whose songs,

native to the soil, gush out as spontaneously as the warbling of the bird or the

murmuring of the brook. Even in their delineation of beauty, how different are the

two poets. In Keats that beauty is chiefly beauty of form; in Tennyson that of

colour has at least an equal place: one consequence of which is, that while Keats,

in his descriptions of nature, contents himself with embodying separate objects

with a luxurious vividness, Tennyson’s gallery abounds with cool far-stretching

landscapes, in which the fair green plain and winding river, and violet mountain

ridge and peaks of remotest snow, are harmonised through all the gradations of

aerial distance. Yet his is not to be classed with that recent poetry which has been

noted for a devotion, almost religious, to mere outward nature. His landscapes,

like those of Titian, are for the most part but a beautiful background to the

figures. Men and manners are more his theme than nature. His genius seems to

tend as naturally to the idyllic as that of Shelley did to the lyrical, or that of

Keats to the epic.

The moral range of Mr Tennyson’s poetry, too, is as wide as the imaginative.

It is remarkable how little place, notwithstanding the ardour of Shelley and of

Keats, is given in their works, to the affections properly so called. They abound

in emotion and passion: in which respect Mr Tennyson resembles them; but he is

not less happy in the delineation of those human affections which depend not on


instinct or imagination alone, but which, growing out of the heart, are modified

by circumstance and association, and constitute the varied texture of social




The language of actual life


Extract from D.M.Moir’s Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the

Past Half-Century (1851), 215–21.

David Macbeth Moir (1798–1851) had written for Blackwood’s

over the signature ‘Delta’. His Sketches of the Poetical Literature

contains a series of lectures given in the year of his death. In earlier

lectures he has argued that before Keats there were three ‘schools’ of

English poetry: 1. Chaucer to Shirley; 2. Dryden and Pope; 3.

Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others. Finally ‘a fourth school began to

exhibit itself about thirty years ago, and since then has been

gradually gaining an ascendancy…. The source of this new

composite school was at first very distinctly Italian…. I do not think

we can trace an origin to this school,—which soon comprehended

among its disciples Keats, Shelley, and Barry Cornwall…farther

back than 1816, when it showed itself in full-blown perfection in the

Story of Rimini, by Leigh Hunt.’ Moir’s lecture on Keats is given

unabridged except for the quotations.

It is very evident that John Keats, the greatest of all our poets who have died in

early youth—not excepting Michael Bruce, Kirke White, or Chatterton—

imbibed in boyhood a sincere admiration for .the poetry of Leigh Hunt, and

primarily adopted him as his model in style and diction; although, ere he

ventured before the public, he had considerably altered and modified, or rather

extended his views on these matters, by a reverential study of the antique English

pastoral poets, Drayton, Spenser, and William Browne—the last of whom

he especially followed in the selection of his imagery, and the varied harmony of

his numbers. Crude, unsustained, and extravagant as these juvenile attempts in

most part are, we have ever and anon indications of a fine original genius. His

garden, though unweeded, is full of freshness and fragrance; the bindweed

strangles the mignionette; and docks and dandelions half conceal the yellow

cowslip and the purple violet; but we are wooed to this corner by the bud of the

moss-rose, and to that by the double wall-flower. We feel it to be a wilderness;

but it is a wilderness of many sweets. I allude here more particularly to his first


little volume, published in 1817, with a head of Spenser on the title-page, and

dedicated to Leigh Hunt.

Images of majesty and beauty continued to crowd on the imagination of the

young poet; but either his taste in selection was deficient, or he shrank from the

requisite labour; and in the following year appeared his Endytnion, a poetic

romance. It would be difficult to point out anywhere a work more remarkable for

its amount of beauties and blemishes, inextricably entertwined. Its mythology is

Greek, and its imagery the sylvan-pastoral—reminding us now of the pineflavoured Idyllia of Theocritus, and now of the ‘bosky bournes and bushy dells’

of Milton’s Cotnus. Preparatory to its composition, he had saturated his mind

with the ‘leafy luxury’ of our early dramatists; and we have many reflections of

the rural beauty and repose pervading The Faithful Shepherdess of Fletcher, and

The Sad Shepherd of Ben Jonson; as well as of the early Milton of the ‘Arcades’

and ‘Lycidas.’ We are entranced with the prodigal profusion of imagery, and the

exquisite variety of metres sweeping along with an Ỉolian harmony, at once so

refined and yet seemingly so inartificial. All is, however, a wild luxurious revel

merely, where Imagination laughs at Taste, and bids defiance to Judgment and

Reason. There is no discrimination, no selection—even the very rhymes seem

sometimes to have suggested the thoughts that follow; and whatever comes

uppermost comes out, provided it be florid, gorgeous, or glittering. The work is a

perfect mosaic of bright tints and graceful forms, despotically commingled, almost

without regard to plan or congruity; so that we often lose the thin thread of story

altogether in the fantastic exuberance of ornament and decoration. Ever and anon,

however, we come to bits of exquisite beauty— patches of deep, serene blue sky,

amid the rolling clouds, which compel us to pause in admiration—glimpses of

nature full of tenderness and truth—touches of sentiment deep as they are

delicate. His opening line, ‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,’ conveys a fine

philosophic senti-ment, and is the key-note to the whole body of his poetry.

Crude, unequal, extravagant, nay, absurd as he sometimes is—for there is

scarcely an isolated page in Endymion to which one or more of these harsh

epithets may not in some degree be justly applied—yet, on the other hand, it would

be difficult to point out any twenty lines in sequence unredeemed by some happy

turn of thought, some bright image, or some eloquent expression.

That all this was the result of imaginative wealth and youthful inexperience, is

demonstrated by the last poems John Keats was permitted to give the world, and

which are as rich, but much more select, in imagery, purer in taste, and more

fastidious in diction, as well as more felicitous and artistic. He had found out

that, to keep interest alive, it was necessary to deal less with the shadowy, the

remote, and the abstract; and that, without losing in dignity, he might descend

more to the thoughts and feelings—nay, even to the ways, and habits, and

language of actual life. From the pure mythological of Endymion he attempted a

blending of the real with the supernatural in ‘Lamia’, and exactly with the degree

of success which might, in the management of such elements, have been

expected from him. Isabella, or the Pot of Basil,’ his version of Boccaccio’s


exquisite little story, is much less questionable. We have therein character and

incident as well as description; and to these the last is made subordinate. We

there also see, for the first time, that instead of playing with his theme, he has set

himself in earnest to grapple with it. The composition is more elaborate and we

have a selection of thoughts and images instead of the indiscriminate pouring

forth of all. The faults of affectation and quaintness, although not entirely got rid

of, are there less glaring and offensive; and along with the mere garniture of

fancy, we have a story of human interest, of love and revenge and suffering, well

though peculiarly told. In this poem he wonderfully triumphed over his earlier

besetting frailties—want of precision and carelessness of style—and exhibited

such rapid strides of improvement, as enable us to form some probable estimate

of what his genius might have achieved, had he been destined to reach maturer


His two latest were also his two most perfect compositions, yet completely

opposite in their character—‘The Eve of St Agnes,’ of the most florid Gothic,

remarkable for its sensuous beauty; and Hyperion, a fragment equally

remarkable for its Greek severity and antique solemnity of outline. To the same

latest period of his strangely fevered and brief career—for he died at twenty-four

—are referable the four exquisite odes,—‘To a Nightingale,’ ‘To a Grecian Urn,’

‘To Melancholy,’ and ‘To Autumn,’—all so pregnant with deep thought, so

picturesque in their limning, and so suggestive.

Let us take three stanzas from ‘The Eve of St Agnes.’ They describe Madeline

at her devotions before lying down to sleep on that charmed night. She has just

entered her chamber, when—

Out went the taper as she hurried in;

[Quotes ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, stanzas 23–5.]

We have here a specimen of descriptive power luxuriously rich and original;

but the following lines, from the ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ flow from a far more

profound fountain of inspiration. After addressing the bird as a

light-winged Dryad of the trees,

In some melodious plot

Of beechen green and shadows numberless,

Singing of summer in full-throated ease,

he adds, somewhat fantastically, it must be owned, at first—

Oh, for a beaker full of the warm south,

[Quotes ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, lines 15–30, and 61 to the end.]

In his earlier pieces Keats was too extramundane—too fond of the visionary.

His fancy and feelings rioted in a sort of sun-coloured cloudland, where all was


gorgeous and glowing, rose-tinctured or thunderous; but ever most indistinct, and

often incomprehensible, save when regarded as dream-like imaginings—the

morning reveries of a young enthusiast. His genius, however, was gradually

coming under the control of judgment; his powers of conception and of

expression were alike maturing; and his heart was day by day expanding to the

genial influences of healthy simple nature. A large portion of what he has left

behind is crude, unconcocted, and unsatisfactory, exhibiting rather poetical

materials than poetical superstructure; but his happier strains vindicate the

presence of a great poet in something more than embryo. Which of our

acknowledged magnates, if cut off at the same age, would have left so much

really excellent? Altogether, whether we regard his short fevered life, or the

quality of his genius, John Keats was assuredly one of the most remarkable men

in the range of our poetical literature; nor, while taste and sensibility remain in

the world, can ever his prediction of his own fate be verified, when he dictated

his epitaph as that of one ‘whose name was written in water.’

As an example of Keats’ severer manner, I give the magnificent portrait of

Saturn, with which Hyperion opens. In the same fragment we find several other

passages equally grand and solemn.

[Quotes Hyperion, lines 1–21.]

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Shelley, Keats and Tennyson compared

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