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Outlines of English and American Literature
John Keats
by Long, William J.

  A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
  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.

The above lines, from Endymion, reflect the ideal of the young singer whom we rank with the best poets of the nineteenth century. Unlike other romanticists of that day, he seems to have lived for poetry alone and to have loved it for its own sake, as we love the first spring flowers. His work was shamefully treated by reviewers; it was neglected by the public; but still he wrote, trying to make each line perfect, in the spirit of those medieval workmen who put their hearts into a carving that would rest on some lofty spire far above the eyes of men. To reverence beauty wherever he found it, and then in gratitude to produce a new work of beauty which should live forever,--that was Keats's only aim. It is the more wonderful in view of his humble origin, his painful experience, his tragic end.


Only twenty-five years of life, which included seven years of uncongenial tasks, and three of writing, and three of wandering in search of health,--that sums up the story of Keats. He was born in London; he was the son of a hostler; his home was over the stable; his playground was the dirty street. The family prospered, moved to a better locality, and the children were sent to a good school. Then the parents died, and at fifteen Keats was bound out to a surgeon and apothecary. For four years he worked as an apprentice, and for three years more in a hospital; then, for his heart was never in the work, he laid aside his surgeon's kit, resolving never to touch it again.

Two Poetic Ideals

Since childhood he had been a reader, a dreamer, but not till a volume of Spenser's Faery Queen was put into his hands did he turn with intense eagerness to poetry. The influence of that volume is seen in the somewhat monotonous sweetness of his early work. Next he explored the classics (he had read Virgil in the original, but he knew no Greek), and the joy he found in Chapman's translation of Homer is reflected in a noble sonnet. From that time on he was influenced by two ideals which he found in Greek and medieval literature, the one with its emphasis on form, the other with its rich and varied coloring.

During the next three years Keats published three small volumes, his entire life's work. These were brutally criticized by literary magazines; they met with ridicule at the hands of Byron, with indifference on the part of Scott and Wordsworth. The pathetic legend that the poet's life was shortened by this abuse is still repeated, but there is little truth in it. Keats held manfully to his course, having more weighty things than criticism to think about. He was conscious that his time was short; he was in love with his Fannie Brawne, but separated from her by illness and poverty; and, like the American poet Lanier, he faced death across the table as he wrote. To throw off the consumption which had fastened upon him he tried to live in the open, making walking trips in the Lake Region; but he met with rough fare and returned from each trip weaker than before. He turned at last to Italy, dreading the voyage and what lay beyond. Night fell as the ship put to sea; the evening star shone clear through the storm clouds, and Keats sent his farewell to life and love and poetry in the sonnet beginning:

      Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art.

He died soon after his arrival in Rome, in 1821. Shelley, who had hailed Keats as a genius, and who had sent a generous invitation to come and share his home, commemorated the poet's death and the world's loss in Adonais, which ranks with Milton's Lycidas, Tennyson's In Memoriam and Emerson's Threnody among the great elegiac poems of our literature.

The Work of Keats

The first small volume of Keats (Poems, 1817) seems now like an experiment. The part of that experiment which we cherish above all others is the sonnet "On Chapman's Homer," which should be read entire for its note of joy and for its fine expression of the influence of classic poetry. The second volume, Endymion, may be regarded as a promise. There is little reality in the rambling poem which gives title to the volume (the story of a shepherd beloved of a moon-goddess), but the bold imagery of the work, its Spenserian melody, its passages of rare beauty,--all these speak of a true poet who has not yet quite found himself or his subject. A third volume, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes and Other Poems (1820), is in every sense a fulfillment, for it contains a large proportion of excellent poetry, fresh, vital, melodious, which improves with years, and which carries on its face the stamp of permanency.

His Best Poems

The contents of this little volume may be arranged, not very accurately, in three classes, In the first are certain poems that by their perfection of form show the Greek or classic spirit. Best known of these poems are the fragment "Hyperion," with its Milton-like nobility of style, and "Lamia," which is the story of an enchantress whom love transforms into a beautiful woman, but who quickly vanishes because of her lover's too great curiosity,--a parable, perhaps, of the futility of science and philosophy, as Keats regarded them.

Of the poems of the second class, which reflect old medieval legends, "The Pot of Basil," "The Eve of St. Agnes" and "La Belle Dame sans Merci" are praised by poets and critics alike. "St. Agnes," which reflects a vague longing rather than a story, is the best known; but "La Belle Dame" may appeal to some readers as the most moving of Keats's poems. The essence of all old metrical romances is preserved in a few lines, which have an added personal interest from the fact that they may reveal something of the poet's sad love story.

In the third class are a few sonnets and miscellaneous poems, all permeated by the sense of beauty, showing in every line the genius of Keats and his exquisite workmanship. The sonnets "On the Sea," "When I have Fears," "On the Grasshopper and Cricket" and "To Sleep"; the fragment beginning "In a drear-nighted December"; the marvelous odes "On a Grecian Urn," "To a Nightingale" and "To Autumn," in which he combines the simplicity of the old classics with the romance and magic of medieval writers,--there are no works in English of a similar kind that make stronger appeal to our ideal of poetry and of verbal melody. Into the three stanzas of "Autumn," for example, Keats has compressed the vague feelings of beauty, of melancholy, of immortal aspiration, which come to sensitive souls in the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness." It may be compared, or rather contrasted, with another poem on the same subject which voices the despair in the heart of the French poet Verlaine, who hears "the sobbing of the violins of autumn":

  Les sanglots longs
  Des violons
      De l'automne
  Blessent mon coeur
  D'une langueur

Keats: An Essay of Criticism

Beyond recommending a few of his poems for their beauty, there is really so little to be said of Keats that critics are at their wit's end to express their appreciation. So we read of Keats's "pure aestheticism," his "copious perfection," his "idyllic visualization," his "haunting poignancy of feeling," his "subtle felicities of diction," his "tone color," and more to the same effect. Such criticisms are doubtless well meant, but they are harder to follow than Keats's "Endymion"; and that is no short or easy road of poesy. Perhaps by trying more familiar ways we may better understand Keats, why he appeals so strongly to poets, and why he is so seldom read by other people.

The Sense of Beauty

The first characteristic of the man was his love for every beautiful thing he saw or heard. Sometimes the object which fascinated him was the widespread sea or a solitary star; sometimes it was the work of man, the product of his heart and brain attuned, such as a passage from Homer, a legend of the Middle Ages, a vase of pure lines amid the rubbish of a museum, like a bird call or the scent of violets in a city street. Whatever the object that aroused his sense of beauty, he turned aside to stay with it a while, as on the byways of Europe you will sometimes see a man lay down his burden and bare his head before a shrine that beckons him to pray. With this reverence for beauty Keats had other and rarer qualities: the power to express what he felt, the imagination which gave him beautiful figures, and the taste which enabled him to choose the finest words, the most melodious phrases, wherewith to reflect his thought or mood or emotion.

Such was the power of Keats, to be simple and reverent in the presence of beauty, and to give his feeling poetic or imaginative expression. In respect of such power he probably had no peer in English literature. His limitations were twofold: he looked too exclusively on the physical side of beauty, and he lived too far removed from the common, wholesome life of men.

Sense and Soul

To illustrate our criticism: that man whom we saw by the wayside shrine acknowledged the presence of some spiritual beauty and truth, the beauty of holiness, the ineffable loveliness of God. So the man who trains a child, or gives thanks for a friend, or remembers his mother, is always at heart a lover of beauty,--the moral beauty of character, of comradeship, of self-sacrifice. But the poetry of Keats deals largely with outward matters, with form, color, melody, odors, with what is called "sensuous" beauty because it delights our human senses. Such beauty is good, but it is not supreme. Moreover, the artist who would appeal widely to men must by sympathy understand their whole life, their mirth as well as their sorrow, their days of labor, their hours of play, their moments of worship. But Keats, living apart with his ideal of beauty, like a hermit in his cell, was able to understand and to voice only one of the profound interests of humanity. For this reason, and because of the deep note of sadness which sounds through all his work like the monotone of the sea, his exquisite poems have never had any general appreciation. Like Spenser, who was his first master, he is a poet's poet.


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