( Originally Published 1919 )
1. The Biography
SIR SIDNEY COLVIN deserves praise for the noble architecture of the temple he has built in honour of Keats. His great book, John Keats: His Life and Poetry; His Friends, Critics, and After-fame, is not only a temple, indeed, but a museum. Sir Sidney has brought together here the whole of Keats's world, or at least all the relics of his world that the last of a band of great collectors has been able to recover; ; and in the result we can accompany Keats through the glad and sad and mad; and bad hours of his short and marvellous life as we have never been able to do before under the guidance of a single biographer. We are still left in the dark, it is true, as to Keats's `race and descent. Whether Keats's' father came to London from Cornwall or not, Sir Sidney has not been able to decide on the rather shaky evidence that has been put forward. If it should hereafter turn out that Keats was a Cornishman at one remove, Matthew Arnold's conjecture as to the " Celtic element " in him, as in other English poets, may revive in the general esteem.
In the present state of our knowledge, however, we must be content to accept Keats as a Londoner without ancestors beyond the father who was head-ostler at the sign of the " Swan and Hoop," Finsbury Pavement, and married his master's daughter. It was at the stable at the " Swan and Hoop "—not a public-house, by the way, but a livery-stable—that Keats was prematurely born at the end of October 1795. He was scarcely nine years old when his father was killed by a fall from a horse. He was only fourteen when his mother (who had re-married unhappily and then been separated from her husband) died, a victim of chronic rheumatism and consumption. It is from his mother that Keats seems to have inherited his impetuous and passionate nature. There is the evidence of a certain wholesale tea-dealer—the respectability of whose trade may have inclined him to censoriousness—to the effect that, both as girl and woman, she " was a person of unbridled temperament, and that in her later years she fell into Ioose ways, and was no credit to the family." That she had other qualities besides those mentioned by the tea-dealer is shown by the passionate affection that existed between her and her son John. " Once as a young child, when she was ordered to be kept quiet during an illness, he is said to have insisted on keeping watch at her door with an old sword, and allowing no one to go in." As she lay dying, " he sat up whole nights with her in a great chair, would suffer nobody to give her medicine, or even cook her food, but himself, and read novels to her in her intervals of ease." The Keats children were fortunately not left penniless. Their grandfather, the proprietor of the livery-stable, had bequeathed a fortune of £13,000, a little of which was spent on sending Keats to a good school till the age of sixteen, and afterwards enabled him to attend Guy's Hospital as a medical student.
It is almost impossible to credit the accepted story that he passed all his boyhood without making any attempt at writing poetry. " He did not begin to write," says Sir Sidney Colvin, " till he was near eighteen." If this is so, one feels all the more grateful to his old schoolfellow, Cowden Clarke, who lent him The Faëry Queene, with a long list of other books, and in doing so presented him with the key that unlocked the unsuspected treasure of his genius. There is only one person, indeed, in all the Keats circle to whom one is more passionately grateful than to Cowden Clarke : that is Fanny Brawne. Keats no doubt had laboured to some purpose—occasionally, to fine purpose—with his genius before the autumn of 1818, when he met Fanny Brawne for the first time. None the less, had he died before that date, he would have been remembered in literature not as a marvellous original artist, but rather as one of those " inheritors of unfulfilled renown " among whom Shelley surprisingly placed him. Fanny Brawne may (or may not) have been the bad fairy of Keats as a man. She was unquestionably his good fairy as a poet.
This is the only matter upon which one is seriously disposed to quarrel with Sir Sidney Colvin as a biographer. He does not emphasize as he ought the debt we are under to Fanny Brawne as the intensifier of Keats's genius—the " minx," as Keats irritably called her, who transformed him in a few months from a poet of still doubtful fame into a master and an immortal. The attachment, Sir Sidney thinks, was a misfortune for him, though he qualifies this by adding that so probably under the circumstances must any passion for a woman have been." Well, let us test this " misfortune " by its consequences. The meeting with Fanny took place, as I have said, in the autumn of 1818. During the winter Keats continued to write Hyperion, which he seems already to have begun. In January 1819 he wrote The Eve of St. Agnes. During the spring of that year, he wrote the Ode to Psyche, the Ode on a Grecian Urn, the Ode to a Nightingale, and La Belle Dame sans Merci. In the autumn he finished Lamia, and wrote the Ode to Autumn. To the same year belongs the second greatest of his sonnets, Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art. In other words, practically all the fine gold of Keats's work was produced in the months in which his passion for Fanny Brawne was consuming him as with fire. His greatest poems we clearly owe to that heightened sense of beauty which resulted from his translation into a lover. It seems to me a treachery to Keats's memory to belittle a woman who was at least the occasion of such passionate expenditure of genius. Sir Sidney Colvin does his best to be fair to Fanny, but his presentation of the story of Keats's love for her will, I am afraid, be regarded by the long line of her disparagers as an endorsement of their blame.
I can understand the dislike of Fanny Brawne on the part of those who dislike Keats and all his works. But if we accept Keats and The Eve of St. Agnes, we had better be honest and also accept Fanny, who inspired them. Keats, it must be remembered, was a sensualist. His poems belong to the literature of the higher sensualism. They reveal him as a man not altogether free from the vulgarities of sensualism, as well as one who was able to transmute it into perfect literature. He seems to have admired women vulgarly as creatures whose hands were waiting to be squeezed, rather than as equal human beings; the eminent exception to this being his sister-in-law, Georgiana. His famous declaration of independence of them—that he would rather give them a sugar-plum than his time—was essentially a cynicism in the exhausted-Don-Juan mood. Hence, Keats was almost doomed to fall in love with provocation rather than with what the Victorians called " soul." His destiny was not to be, a happy lover, but the slave of a minx." It was not a slavery without dignity, however. It had the dignity of tragedy. Sir Sidney, Colvin regrets that the love-letters of Keats to Fanny were ever published. It would be as reasonable, in my opinion, to regret the publication of La Belle Dame sans Merci. La Belle Dame sans Merci says in literature merely what the love-letters say in autobiography. The love-letters, indeed, like the poem, affect us as great literature does. They unquestionably take us down into the depths of suffering—those depths in which tortured souls cry out almost inarticulately in their anguish. The torture of the dying lover, as he sails for Italy and leaves Fanny, never to see her again, has almost no counterpart in biographical literature. " The thought of leaving Miss Brawne," he writes to Brown from Yarmouth, " is beyond everything horrible —the sense of darkness coming over me—I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing." And when he reaches Naples he writes to the same friend : ---
I can bear to die—I cannot bear to leave her. O God ! God ! God ! Everything that I have in my trunks that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear. The silk lining she put in my travelling cap scalds my head. My imagination is horribly vivid about her—I see her—I hear her. . . . O that I could be buried near where she lives ! I am afraid to write to her—to receive a letter from her. To see her handwriting would break my heart —even to hear of her anyhow, to see her name written, would be more than I can bear.
Sir Sidney Colvin does not attempt to hide Keats's love-story away in a corner. Where he goes wrong, it seems to me; is in his failure to realize that this love-story was the making of Keats as a man of genius.
Had Sir Sidney fully grasped the part played by Fanny Brawne as, for good or evil, the presiding genius of Keats as a poet, he would, I fancy, have found a different explanation of the changes introduced into the later version of La Belle Dame sans Merci. Sir Sidney is all in favour—and there is something to be said for his preference—of' the earlier version, which begins: ---
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
But he does not perceive the reasons that led Keats to alter this in the version he published in Leigh Hunt's Indicator to :
Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight, and so on. Sir Sidney thinks that this and other changes, which are all in the direction of the slipshod and the commonplace, were made on Hunt's suggestion, and that Keats acquiesced from fatigue or indifference." To accuse Hunt of wishing to alter " knight-at-arms " to wretched wight " seems to me unwarrantable guessing. Surely a much more likely explanation is that Keats, who in this poem wrote his own biography, as an unfortunate lover, came in a realistic' mood to dislike knight-at-arms as a too romantic image of himself. He decided, I conjecture, that " wretched Wight " was a description nearer the bitter truth. Hence his emendation. The other alterations also seem to me to belong to Keats rather than to Hunt. This does not mean that the " knight-at-arms version is not also beautiful. But, in spite of this, I trust the Delegates of the Oxford University Press will not listen to Sir Sidney Colvin's appeal to banish the later version from their editions of Keats. Every edition of Keats ought to contain both versions just as it ought to, contain both versions of Hyperion.
Nothing that I have written will be regarded, I, trust, as depreciating the essential excellence, power, and (in its scholarly way) even the greatness of Sir Sidney Colvin's book. But a certain false, emphasis here and there, an intelligible prejudice in favour of believing what is good of his subject, has left his book almost too ready to the hand of those who cannot love a man of genius without desiring to " respectabilize " him. Sir Sidney sees clearly enough the double nature of Keats—his fiery courage, shown in his love of fighting as a schoolboy, his generosity, his virtue of the heart, on the one hand, and his luxurious love of beauty, his tremulous and swooning sensitiveness in the presence of nature and women, his morbidness, his mawkishness, his fascination as by serpents, on the other. But in the resultant portrait, it is a too respectable and virile Keats that emerges. Keats was more virile as a man than is generally understood. He does not owe his immortality to his virility, however. He owes it to, his servitude to golden images, to his citizenship of the world of the senses, to his bondage to physical love. Had he lived longer he might have invaded other worlds. His recasting of Hyperion opens with a cry of distrust in the artist who is content to live in the little world of his art. His very revulsion against the English of Milton was a revulsion against the dead language of formal beauty. But it is in formal beauty—the formal beauty especially of the Ode on a Grecian Urn, which has never been surpassed in literature—that his own achievement lies. He is great among the pagans, not among the prophets. Unless we keep this clearly in mind our praise of him will not be appreciation. It will be but a sounding funeral speech instead of communion with a lovely and broken spirit, the greatest boast of whose life was : I have loved the principle of beauty in all things."
2. The Matthew Arnold View
Matthew Arnold has often been attacked for his essay on Shelley. His essay on Keats, as a matter of fact, is much less sympathetic and penetrating. Here, more than anywhere else in his work, he seems to be a professor with whiskers drinking afternoon tea and discoursing on literature to a circle, of schoolgirls. It is not that Matthew Arnold under-estimated Keats.
He is with Shakespeare," he declared ; and in another sentence : " In what we call natural magic, he ranks with Shakespeare." One may disagree with this—for in natural magic Keats does not rank even with Shelley —and, at the same time, feel that Matthew Arnold gives Keats too little rather than too much appreciation. He divorced Keats's poetry too gingerly from Keats's life. He did not sufficiently realize the need for under-standing all that passion and courage and railing and ecstasy of which the poems are the expression. He was a little shocked ; he would have liked to draw a veil ; he did not approve of a young man who could make love in language so unlike the measured ardour of one of Miss Austen's heroes. The impression left by the letters to Fanny Brawne, he declared, was " unpleasing." After quoting one of the letters, he goes on to comment : ---
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.
Applied to the letter which Arnold had just quoted there could not be a more foolish criticism. Keats was dogged by a curious vulgarity (which produced occasional comic effects in his work), but his self-abandonment was not vulgar. It may have been in a sense immoral : he was an artist who practised the philosophy of exquisite moments long before Pater wrote about it. He abandoned himself to the sensations of love and the sensations of an artist like a voluptuary. The best of his work is day-dreams of love and art.
The degree to which his genius fed itself upon art and day-dreams of art is suggested by the fact that the most perfect of his early poems, written at the age of twenty, was the sonnet on Chapman's Homer, and that the most perfect of his later poems was the Ode on a Grecian Urn. His magic was largely artistic magic, not natural magic. He writes about Pan and the nymphs, but we do not feel that they were shapes of earth and air to him, as they were to Shelley ; rather they seem like figures copied out of his friends' pictures. Consider, for example, the picture of a nymph who appeared to Endymion : —
It was a nymph uprising to the breast
The gestures of the nymph are as ludicrous as could be found in an Academy, or Salon picture. Keats's human or quasi-human beings are seldom more than decorations, but this is a commonplace decoration. The figures in The Eve of St. Agnes and the later narratives are a part of the general beauty of the poems ; but even there they are made, as it were, to match the furniture. It is the same in all his best poems. Keats's imagination lived in castles, and he loved the properties, and the men and women were among the properties. We may forget the names of Porphyro and Madeline, but we ,do not forget the background of casement and arras and golden dishes and beautiful sensual things against which we see them, charming figures of love-sickness. Similarly, in Lamia, we may remember the name of the serpent-woman's lover with difficulty, ; but who can forget the colours of her serpent-skin or the furnishing of her couch and of her palace in Corinth : ---
That purple-lined palace of sweet sin ?
In Keats every palace has a purple lining.
So much may be said in definition of Keats's genius. It was essentially an sthetic genius. It anticipated both William Morris and Oscar Wilde. There is in Keats a passion for the luxury of the world such as we do not find in Wordsworth or Shelley. He had not that bird-like quality of song which they had—that happiness to be alive and singing between the sky and the green earth. He looked an beautiful things with the intense devotion of the temple-worshipper rather than with the winged pleasure of the great poets, He was love-sick for beauty as Porphyro for Madeline. His attitude to beauty—the secret and immortal beauty —is one of love shackled with vain-loving." It is desire of an almost bodily kind. Keats's work, indeed, is in large measure simply the beautiful expression of bodily desire, or of something of the same nature as bodily desire. His conception of love was almost entirely physical. He was greedy for it to the point of green-sickness. His intuition told him that passion so entirely physical had in it something fatal. Love in his poems is poisonous and secret in its beauty. It is passion for a Lamia, for La Belle Dame sans Merci. Keats's ecstasies were swooning ecstasies. They lacked joy. It is not only, in the Ode to a Nightingale that he seems to praise death more than life. This was temperamental with him. He felt the " cursed spite " of things as melancholily as Hamlet did. He was able to dream a world nearer his happiness than this world of dependence and church bells and literary jabberers ; and he could come to no terms except with his fancy. I do not mean to suggest that he despised the beauty of the earth. Rather he filled his eyes with it : ---
Hill-flowers running wild
But the simple pleasure in colours and shapes grows less in his later poems. It becomes overcast. His great poems have the intensity, and sorrow of a farewell.
It would be absurd, however, to paint Keats as a man without vitality, without pugnacity, without merriment. His brother declared that " John was the very soul of manliness and courage, and as much like the Holy Ghost as Johnny, Keats "the Johnny Keats who had allowed himself to be snuffed out by an article." As a schoolboy he had been fond' of fighting, and as a man he had his share of militancy. He had a quite healthy sense of humour, too—not a subtle sense, but at least sufficient to enable him to regard his work playfully, at times, as when he commented on an early version of La Belle Dame sans Merci containing the lines:---
And there I shut her wild, wild eyes
" Why four kisses? " he writes to his brother :
Why four kisses—you will say—why four ? Because I wish to restrain the headlong impetuosity of my Muse—she would have fain said " score " without hurting the rhyme—but we must temper the imagination, as the critics say; with judgment. I was obliged to choose an even number, that both eyes might have fair play, and. to speak truly I think two apiece quite sufficient. Suppose I had said seven, there would have been three and-a-half apiece —a very awkward affair, and well got out of on my side.
That was written nearly a year after the famous Quarterly article on Endymion in which the reviewer had so severely taken to task " Mr. Keats (if that be his real name, for we almost doubt that any man in his senses would put his real name to such a rhapsody)." It suggests that Keats retained at least a certain share of good spirits, in spite of the Quarterly and Fanny Brawne and the approach of death. His observation, too, was often that of a spirited common-sense realist rather than an aesthete, as in his first description of Fanny Brawne : --
She is about my height—with a fine style and countenance of the lengthened sort—she wants sentiment in every feature—she manages to make her hair look well—her nostrils are fine—though a little painful—her mouth is bad and good—her profile is better than her full face, which, indeed, is not full but pale and thin, without showing any bone—her shape is very graceful, and sa are her movements—her arms are good, her hands badish—her feet tolerable—she is not seventeen [nineteen ?]—but she is ignorant —monstrous in her behaviour, flying out in all directions, calling people such names—that I was forced lately to make use of the term minx ; this is, I think, not from any innate vice but from a penchant she has of acting stylishly. I am, however, tired of such style, and shall decline any more of it.
Yet before many months he was writing to the " minx," " I will imagine you Venus to-night, and pray, pray, pray, pray to your star like a heathen." Certain it is, as I have already said, that it was after his meeting with Fanny Brawne that he grew, as in a night, into a great poet. Let us not then abuse Keats's passion for her as vulgar. And let us not attempt to make up for this by ranking him with Shakespeare. He is great among the second, not among the first poets.
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