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English Literature for Boys and Girls by  H. E. Marshall


 

 

KEATS—THE POET OF BEAUTY

[620] JOHN KEATS, the poet whose death Shelley mourned in Adonais, was by a few years the younger, having been born in 1795. He was born, too, in very different circumstances, for whereas Shelley was the eldest son of a country gentleman, John Keats, was the eldest son of a stableman.

As a boy Thomas Keats had come to London and found a situation as ostler in some livery stable. He was clever and steady, and before he was twenty had risen to be head ostler and married his master's daughter. Keats then became manager of the stables, and his father-in-law, who was comfortably off, went away to live in the country. John's parents were not poor, nor were they common people. In all they had four children, two boys besides John, and a little girl, and they determined to give their children a good education. They would have liked to send their boys to Harrow, but finding that would cost too much they sent them to a smaller school at Enfield. It was a good school, with a large playground, and John seems to have had a happy time there. He was a little chap for his years, but a manly little fellow, broad shouldered and strong. He was full of spirits and fond of fun, and in spite of his passionate temper, every one liked him. He was not particularly fond of lessons, but he did them easily and then turned to other things. What he liked best was fighting. [621] "He would fight any one," says one of his old schoolfellows, "Morning, noon, and night, his brothers among the rest. It was meat and drink to him." "Yet," says another, "no one ever had an angry word to say of him, and they loved him not only for his terrier-like courage, but for his generosity, his high- mindedness, and his utter ignorance of what was mean or base." But although John was so much loved, and although he was generally so bright and merry, he had miserable times too. He had fits of melancholy, but when these came he would go to his brothers and pour out all his grief to them. This made him feel better, and he troubled no one else with his moods.

Very soon after John went to school his father was killed by a fall from his horse, his grandfather died too, and his mother married again. But the marriage was not happy and she soon left her new husband and went to live with her own mother at Edmonton. So for five years John's life was spent between school and his grandmother's house. They were a happy family. The brothers loved each other though they jangled and fought, and they loved their mother and little sister too.

So the years went on, and John showed not the lightest sign of being a poet. Some doggerel rimes he wrote to his sister show the boy he was, not very unlike other boys.

"There was a naughty boy,

And a naughty boy was he:

He kept little fishes

In washing-tubs three,

In spite

Of the might

Of the maid,

Nor afraid

Of his granny good.

He often would

[622]

Hurly-burly

Get up early

And go

By hook or crook

To the brook,

And bring home

Miller's Thumb,

Tittlebat

Not over fat,

Minnows small

As the stall

Of a glove,

Not above

The size

Of a nice

Little baby's

Little fingers."

After John had been at school some time he suddenly began to care for books. He began to read and read greedily, he won all the literature prizes, and even on half-holidays he could hardly be driven out to join in the games of his comrades, preferring rather to sit in the quiet schoolroom translating from Latin or French, and even when he was driven forth he went book in hand.

It was while John was still at school that his mother died and all her children were placed under the care of a guardian. As John was now fifteen, their guardian took him from school, and it was decided to make him a doctor. He was apprenticed, in the fashion of the day, to a surgeon at Edmonton, for five years. Keats seems to have been quite pleased with this arrangement. His new studies still left him time to read. He was within walking distance of his old school, and many a summer afternoon he spent reading in the garden with Cowden Clarke, the son of his old schoolmaster, in whom Keats had found a friend. From this friend he borrowed Spenser's Faery Queen, and having read it a new wonder-world seemed opened to [623] him. "He ramped through the scenes of the romance like a young horse turned into a spring meadow," and all through Keats's poetry we find the love of beautiful coloring and of gorgeous detail that we also find in Spenser. It was Spenser that awakened in Keats his sleeping gift of song, and the first verses which he wrote were in imitation of the Elizabethan poet.

From Spenser Keats learned how poetry might be gemmed, how it might glow with color. But there was another source from which he was to learn what pure and severe beauty might mean. This source was the poetry of Homer. Keats knew nothing of Greek, yet all his poetry shows the influence of Greece. At school he had loved the Greek myths and had read them in English. Now among the books he read with his friend Cowden Clarke was a translation of Homer. It was not Pope's translation but an earlier one by Chapman. The two friends began to read it one evening, and so keen was Keats's delight that at times he shouted aloud in joy; the morning light put out their candles. In the dawning of the day the young poet went home quivering with delight. It was for him truly the dawning of a new day. For him still another new world had opened, and his spirit exulted. The voice of this great master poet awoke in him an answering voice, and before many hours had passed Cowden Clarke had in his hands Keats's sonnet On first looking into Chapman's Homer. The lines that Spenser had called forth were a mere imitation; Homer called forth Keats's first really great poem.

"Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many Western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

[624]

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told,

That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne:

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men

Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien."

For some unexplained reason Keats broke his apprenticeship to the surgeon at Edmonton after four years. He did not however give up the idea of becoming a doctor, and he went on with his studies at the London hospitals. Keats was by this time about nineteen. He was small—only about five feet—so that his fellow-students called him "little Keats." But his face was fine, and out of it looked eyes "like those of a wild gipsy-maid set in the face of a young god." He was a steady student, although he did "scribble doggerel rhymes" among his notes, and he passed his examinations well. Yet the work was all against the grain. More and more he began to feel that real nothing but poetry mattered, that for him it was the real business of life. It was hard to study when even a sunbeam had power to set his thoughts astray. "There came a sunbeam into the room," once he said to a friend, "and with it a whole troop of creatures floating in the ray, and I was off with them to Oberon and Fairyland."

Keats gradually made several friends among the young writers of the day. One of these printed a few of the young poet's sonnets in his paper the Examiner, and in 1817 Keats published a volume of poems. This was his good-by to medicine, for although very little notice was taken of the book and very few copies were sold, Keats henceforth took poetry for his life work.

The life of Keats was short, and it had no great adven- [625] tures in it. He lived much now with his two brothers until the elder, George, married and emigrated to America, and the younger, Tom, who had always been an invalid, died. He went on excursions too, with his friends or by himself to country or seaside places, or sometimes he would spend days and nights in the hospitable homes of his friends. And all the time he wrote letters which reveal to us his steadfast, true self, and poems which show how he climbed the steps of fame.

Undismayed at the ill success of his first book, the next year he published his long poem Endymion.

Endymion was a fabled Grecian youth whose beauty was so great that Selene, the cold moon, loved him. He fell asleep upon the hill of Latmus, and while he slept Selene came to him and kissed him. Out of this simple story Keats made a long poem of four books or parts. Into it he wove many other stories, his imagination leading him through strange and wondrous scenery. The poem is not perfect—it is rambling and disconnected—the story of Endymion being but the finest thread to hold a string of beads and priceless pearls together.

The first book is merely a long introduction, but it opens with unforgettable lines—

"A thing of beauty is a joy for ever;

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness; but still will keep

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing."

Then the poet tells us what are the things of beauty of which he thinks.

"Such the sun, the moon,

Trees old, and young, sprouting a shady boon

For simple sheep; and such are daffodils

With the green world they live in; and clear rills

[626]

That for themselves a cooling covert make

'Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,

Rich with a sprinkling of fair must-rose blooms;

And such too is the grandeur of the dooms

We have imagined for the mighty dead;

All lovely tales that we have heard or read;

An endless fountain of immortal drink

Pouring unto us from the heaven's brink."

But although throughout the long poem there are lovely passages, and one or two most beautiful lyrics, the critics of the day saw only the faults of which Endymion  is full, and the poem was received with a storm of abuse.

Soon after Keats published this poem, he, with a friend, set out on a walking tour to the Lake Country and to Scotland. This was Keats's first sight of real mountains, and he gloried in the grand scenery, but said "human nature is finer." When Keats set out there was not a sign of the invalid about him. He walked twenty or thirty miles a day and cheerfully bore the discomforts of travel. But the tour proved too much for his strength. He caught a bad cold and sore throat, and was ordered home by the doctor. He went by boat, arriving brown, shabby, and almost shoeless, among his London friends.

Keats never quite recovered his good health, and other griefs and troubles crowded in upon him. It was after his return from this tour that his dearly loved brother, Tom, died. Cruel criticisms of his poetry hurt him at the same time, and he was in trouble about money, for the family guardian had not proved a good manager. And now to this already overcharged heart something else was added. Keats fell in love. The lady he loved was young and beautiful, but commonplace. Keats himself describes her when he first met her as "beautiful and elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable, and strange." Her beauty and strangeness won for her a way to the poet's [627] heart. Love, however, brought to him no joyful rest, but rather passionate, jealous restlessness. Yet in spite of all his troubles, Keats continued to write poems which will ever be remembered as among the most beautiful in our language.

Like Scott and Byron, Keats wrote metrical romances. One of these, Isabella, or the Pot of Basil, is founded upon a tale of Boccaccio, that old master to whom so many poets have gone for inspiration. In Keats's romances there is no war-cry, no clash of swords as in Scott's, and the luxury is altogether different from Byron's. There is in them that trembling sense of beauty which opens to us wide windows into fairyland. They are simple stories veiled in the glamour of lovely words, and full of the rich color and the magic of the middle ages. But here as elsewhere in Keats's poetry what we lack is the touch of human sorrow. Keats wrote of nature with all Wordsworth's insight and truth, and with greater magic of words. He understood the mystery of nature, but of the mystery of the heart of man it was not his to sing. He lived in a world apart. The terror and beauty of real life hardly touched him. Alone of all the poets of his day he was unmoved by the French Revolution, and all that it stood for.

Some day you will read Keats's metrical romances, and now I will give you a few verses from some of his odes, for in his odes we have Keats's poetry at its very best. Here are some verses from his ode On a Grecian Urn. You have seen such a vase, perhaps, with beautiful sculptured figures on it, dancing maidens and piping shepherds.

"Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,

Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

[628]

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave

thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,

Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;

She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,

For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!


"Ah, happy, happy bought! that cannot shed

Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;

And, happy melodist, unwearied,

For ever piping songs for ever new;

More happy love! more happy, happy love!

For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,

For ever panting, and for ever young;

All breathing human passion far above,

That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,

A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.


. . . . . .

"O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede

Of marble men and maidens over-wrought,

With forest branches and the trodden weed;

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,

'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,'—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

In these last lines we have the dominant note in Keats's song, beauty and the love of beauty. What is true must be beautiful, and just in so far as we move away from truth we lose what is beautiful. Nothing is so ugly as a lie.

And now remembering how Shelley sang of the skylark you will like to read how his brother poet sang of the nightingale.

"My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

[629]

'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,

But being too happy in thine happiness,—

That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,

In some melodious plot

Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,

Singest of summer in full-throated ease.


. . . . . .

"Darkling I listen; and for many a time

I have been half in love with easeful Death,

Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,

To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,

To cease upon the midnight with no pain,

While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad

In such an ecstasy!

Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—

To thy high requiem become a sod.


"Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

No hungry generations tread thee down;

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown:

Perhaps the selfsame song that found a path

Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,

She stood in tears amid the alien corn;

The same that oft times hath

Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam

Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.


"Forlorn! the very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well

As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.

Adieu! Adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep

In the next valley glades;

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is the music:—Do I wake or sleep?"

As another poet has said, speaking of Keats's odes, "Greater lyrical poetry the world may have seen than [630] any that is in these; lovelier it surely has never seen, nor ever can it possibly see."

Hyperion, which also ranks among Keats's great poems, is an unfinished epic. In a far-off way the subject of the poem reminds us of Paradise Lost. For here Keats sings of the overthrow of the Titans, or earlier Greek gods, by the Olympians, or later Greek gods, and in the majestic flow of the blank verse we sometimes seem to hear an echo of Milton.

Hyperion, who gives his name to the poem, was the Sun-god who was dethroned by Apollo. When the poem opens we see the old god Saturn already fallen—

"Old Saturn lifted up

His faded eyes, and saw his kingdom gone,

And all the gloom and sorrow of the place,

And that fair kneeling goddess; and then spake,

As with a palsied tongue, and while his beard

Shook horrid with such aspen-malady:

'O tender spouse of gold Hyperion,

Thea, I feel thee ere I see thy face;

Look up, and let me see our doom in it;

Look up, and tell me if this feeble shape

Is Saturn's; if thou hear'st the voice

Of Saturn; tell me, if this wrinkled brow,

Naked and bare of its great diadem,

Peers like the front of Saturn. Who had power

To make me desolate? whence came the strength?

How was it nurtur'd to such bursting forth,

While Fate seem'd strangled in my nervous grasp?

But it is so.' "

Saturn is king no more. Fate willed it so. But suddenly he rises and in helpless passion cries out against Fate—

"Saturn must be King.

Yes, there must be a golden victory;

There must be gods thrown down and trumpets blown

Of triumph calm, and hymns of festival

[631]

Upon the gold clouds metropolitan,

Voices of soft proclaim, and silver stir

Of strings in hollow shells; and there shall be

Beautiful things made new, for the surprise

Of the sky-children; I will give command:

Thea! Thea! Thea! where is Saturn?"

The volume containing these and other poems was published in 1820, little more than three years after Keats's first volume, and never, perhaps, has poet made such strides in so short a time. And this last book was kindly received. Success had come to Keats, but young though he still was, the success was too late. For soon it was seen that his health had gone and that his life's work was done. As a last hope his friends advised him to spend the winter in Italy. So with a friend he set out. He never returned, but died in Rome in the arms of his friend on the 23rd February 1821. He was only twenty-six. Before he died he asked that on his grave should be placed the words, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water." He had his wish: but we, to whom he left his poetry, know that his name is written in the stars.

How Shelley mourned for him you have read. How the friends who knew and loved him mourned we learn from what they say of him. "I cannot afford to lose him," wrote one. "If I know what it is to love, I truly love John Keats." Another says, "He was the most unselfish of human creatures," and still another, "a sweeter tempered man I never knew."

In a letter which reached Rome too late was this message for Keats, "Tell that great poet and noble-hearted man that we shall all bear his memory in the most precious parts of our hearts, and that the world shall bow their heads to it, as our loves do."

[632] We bow our heads to his memory and say farewell to him in these words of his own fairy song—

"Shed no tear! oh shed no tear!

The flower will bloom another year.

Weep no more! oh weep no more!

Young buds sleep in the roots' white core.

Dry your eyes! oh dry your eyes!

For I was taught in Paradise

To ease my heart of melodies—

Shed no tear.


"Overhear! look overhead!

'Mong the blossoms white and red—

Look up, look up. I flutter now

On this flush pomegranate bough.

See me! 'tis this silvery bill

Ever cures the good man's ill.

Shed not tear! oh shed not tear!

The flower will bloom another year.

Adieu! Adieu!—I fly, adieu!

I vanish in the heaven's blue—

Adieu! Adieu!"


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