Part 6 out of 6
which he is without peer, and, though everywhere grandiose, he is never
turgid. Tasso begins finely with
"Chiama gli abitator dell' ombre eterne
II rauco suon della tartarea tromba;
Treman le spaziose atre caverne,
E l'aer cieco a quel rumor rimbomba,"
but soon spoils all by condescending to definite comparisons with thunder
and intestinal convulsions of the earth; in other words, he is unwary
enough to give us a standard of measurement, and the moment you furnish
Imagination with a yardstick she abdicates in favor of her statistical
poor-relation Commonplace. Milton, with this passage in his memory, is
too wise to hamper himself with any statement for which he can be brought
to book, but wraps himself in a mist of looming indefiniteness;
"He called so loud that all the hollow deep
Of hell resounded,"
thus amplifying more nobly by abstention from his usual method of
prolonged evolution. No caverns, however spacious, will serve his turn,
because they have limits. He could practise this self-denial when his
artistic sense found it needful, whether for variety of verse or for the
greater intensity of effect to be gained by abruptness. His more
elaborate passages have the multitudinous roll of thunder, dying away to
gather a sullen force again from its own reverberations, but he knew that
the attention is recalled and arrested by those claps that stop short
without echo and leave us listening. There are no such vistas and avenues
of verse as his. In reading the "Paradise Lost" one has a feeling of
spaciousness such as no other poet gives. Milton's respect for himself
and for his own mind and its movements rises wellnigh to veneration. He
prepares the way for his thought and spreads on the ground before the
sacred feet of his verse tapestries inwoven with figures of mythology and
romance. There is no such unfailing dignity as his. Observe at what a
reverent distance he begins when he is about to speak of himself, as at
the beginning of the Third Book and the Seventh. His sustained strength
is especially felt in his beginnings. He seems always to start full-sail;
the wind and tide always serve; there is never any fluttering of the
canvas In this he offers a striking contrast with Wordsworth, who has to
go through with a great deal of _yo-heave-ohing_ before he gets under
way. And though, in the didactic parts of "Paradise Lost," the wind dies
away sometimes, there is a long swell that will not let us forget it, and
ever and anon some eminent verse lifts its long ridge above its tamer
peers heaped with stormy memories. And the poem never becomes incoherent;
we feel all through it, as in the symphonies of Beethoven, a great
controlling reason in whose safe-conduct we trust implicitly.
Mr. Masson's discussions of Milton's English are, it seems to me, for the
most part unsatisfactory He occupies some ten pages, for example, with a
history of the genitival form _its_, which adds nothing to our previous
knowledge on the subject and which has no relation to Milton except for
its bearing on the authorship of some verses attributed to him against
the most overwhelming internal evidence to the contrary. Mr. Masson is
altogether too resolute to find traces of what he calls oddly enough
"recollectiveness of Latin constructions" in Milton, and scents them
sometimes in what would seem to the uninstructed reader very idiomatic
English. More than once, at least, he has fancied them by
misunderstanding the passage in which they seem to occur. Thus, in
"Paradise Lost," XI. 520, 521,
"Therefore so abject is their punishment,
Disfiguring not God's likeness but their own,"
has no analogy with _eorum deformantium_, for the context shows that it
is the _punishment_ which disfigures. Indeed, Mr. Masson so often finds
constructions difficult, ellipses strange, and words needing annotation
that are common to all poetry, nay, sometimes to all English, that his
notes seem not seldom to have been written by a foreigner. On this
passage in "Comus,"--
"I do not think my sister so to seek
Or so unprincipled in virtue's book
And the sweet peace that virtue bosoms ever
As that the single want of light and noise
* * * * *
"(Not being in danger, as I trust she is not)
Could stir the constant mood of her calm thoughts,"
Mr. Masson tells us, that "in very strict construction, _not being_ would
cling to _want_ as its substantive; but the phrase passes for the Latin
ablative absolute." So on the words _forestalling night_, "i. e.
anticipating. Forestall is literally to anticipate the market by
purchasing goods before they are brought to the stall." In the verse
"Thou hast immanacled while Heaven sees good,"
he explains that "_while_ here has the sense of _so long as_." But Mr.
Masson's notes on the language are his weakest. He is careful to tell us,
for example, "that there are instances of the use of _shine_ as a
substantive in Spenser, Ben Jonson, and other poets." It is but another
way of spelling _sheen_, and if Mr. Masson never heard a shoeblack in the
street say, "Shall I give you a shine, sir?" his experience has been
singular. His notes in general are very good (though too long).
Those on the astronomy of Milton are particularly valuable. I think he is
sometimes a little too scornful of parallel passages, for if there
is one thing more striking than another in this poet, it is that his
great and original imagination was almost wholly nourished by books,
perhaps I should rather say set in motion by them. It is wonderful how,
from the most withered and juiceless hint gathered in his reading, his
grand images rise like an exhalation; how from the most battered old lamp
caught in that huge drag-net with which he swept the waters of learning,
he could conjure a tall genius to build his palaces. Whatever he touches
swells and towers. That wonderful passage in Comus of the airy tongues,
perhaps the most imaginative in suggestion he ever wrote, was conjured
out of a dry sentence in Purchas's abstract of Marco Polo. Such examples
help us to understand the poet. When I find that Sir Thomas Browne had
said before Milton, that Adam "was _the wisest of all men since_," I am
glad to find this link between the most profound and the most stately
imagination of that age. Such parallels sometimes give a hint also of the
historical development of our poetry, of its apostolical succession, so
to speak. Every one has noticed Milton's fondness of sonorous proper
names, which have not only an acquired imaginative value by association,
and so serve to awaken our poetic sensibilities, but have likewise a
merely musical significance. This he probably caught from Marlowe, traces
of whom are frequent in him. There is certainly something of what
afterwards came to be called Miltonic in more than one passage of
"Tamburlaine," a play in which gigantic force seems struggling from the
block, as in Michel Angelo's Dawn.
Mr. Masson's remarks on the versification of Milton are, in the main,
judicious, but when he ventures on particulars, one cannot always agree
with him. He seems to understand that our prosody is accentual merely,
and yet, when he comes to what he calls _variations_, he talks of the
"substitution of the Trochee, the Pyrrhic, or the Spondee, for the
regular Iambus, or of the Anapaest, the Dactyl, the Tribrach, etc., for
the same." This is always misleading. The shift of the accent in what Mr.
Masson calls "dissyllabic variations" is common to all pentameter verse,
and, in the other case, most of the words cited as trisyllables either
were not so in Milton's day, or were so or not at choice of the
poet, according to their place in the verse. There is not an elision of
Milton's without precedent in the dramatists from whom he learned to
write blank-verse. Milton was a greater metrist than any of them, except
Marlowe and Shakespeare, and he employed the elision (or the slur)
oftener than they to give a faint undulation or retardation to his verse,
only because his epic form demanded it more for variety's sake. How
Milton would have _read_ them, is another question. He certainly often
marked them by an apostrophe in his manuscripts. He doubtless composed
according to quantity, so far as that is possible in English, and as
Cowper somewhat extravagantly says, "gives almost as many proofs of it in
his 'Paradise Lost' as there are lines in the poem." But when Mr.
Masson tells us that
"Self-fed and self-consumed: if this fail,"
"Dwells in all Heaven charity so rare,"
are "only nine syllables," and that in
"Created hugest that swim the ocean-stream,"
"either the third foot must be read as an _anapaest_ or the word _hugest_
must be pronounced as one syllable, _hug'st_," I think Milton would have
invoked the soul of Sir John Cheek. Of course Milton read it
"Created hugest that swim th' ocean-stream,"
just as he wrote (if we may trust Mr. Masson's facsimile)
"Thus sang the uncouth swain to th' oaks and rills,"
a verse in which both hiatus and elision occur precisely as in the
"Gest that swim" would be rather a knotty _anapaest_, an insupportable
foot indeed! And why is even _hug'st_ worse than Shakespeare's
"_Young'st_ follower of thy drum"?
In the same way he says of
"For we have also our evening and our morn,"
that "the metre of this line is irregular," and of the rapidly fine
"Came flying and in mid air aloud thus cried,"
that it is "a line of unusual metre." Why more unusual than
"As being the contrary to his high will"?
What would Mr. Masson say to these three verses from Dekkar?--
"And _knowing_ so much, I muse thou art so poor";
"I fan away the dust _flying_ in mine eyes";
"_Flowing_ o'er with court news only of you and them."
All such participles (where no consonant divided the vowels) were
normally of one syllable, permissibly of two. If Mr. Masson had
studied the poets who preceded Milton as he has studied _him_, he would
never have said that the verse
"Not this rock only; his omnipresence fills,"
was "peculiar as having a distinct syllable of overmeasure." He retains
Milton's spelling of _hunderd_ without perceiving the metrical reason for
it, that _d, t, p, b,_ &c., followed by _l_ or _r_, might be either of
two or of three syllables. In Marlowe we find it both ways in two
"A hundred [hundered] and fifty thousand horse,
Two hundred thousand foot, brave men at arms."
Mr. Masson is especially puzzled by verses ending in one or more
unaccented syllables, and even argues in his Introduction that some of
them might be reckoned Alexandrines. He cites some lines of Spenser as
confirming his theory, forgetting that rhyme wholly changes the
conditions of the case by throwing the accent (appreciably even now, but
more emphatically in Spenser's day) on the last syllable.
"A spirit and judgment equal or superior,"
he calls "a remarkably anomalous line, consisting of twelve or even
thirteen syllables." Surely Milton's ear would never have tolerated a
dissyllabic "spirit" in such a position. The word was then more commonly
of one syllable, though it might be two, and was accordingly spelt
_spreet_ (still surviving in _sprite_), _sprit_, and even _spirt_, as
Milton himself spells it in one of Mr. Masson's facsimiles.
Shakespeare, in the verse
"Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,"
uses the word admirably well in a position where it _cannot_ have a
metrical value of more than one syllable, while it gives a dancing
movement to the verse in keeping with the sense. Our old metrists were
careful of elasticity, a quality which modern verse has lost in
proportion as our language has stiffened into uniformity under the
benumbing fingers of pedants.
This discussion of the value of syllables is not so trifling as it seems.
A great deal of nonsense has been written about imperfect measures in
Shakespeare, and of the admirable dramatic effect produced by filling up
the gaps of missing syllables with pauses or prolongations of the voice
in reading. In rapid, abrupt, and passionate dialogue this is possible,
but in passages of continuously level speech it is barbarously absurd. I
do not believe that any of our old dramatists has knowingly left us a
single imperfect verse. Seeing in what a haphazard way and in how
mutilated a form their plays have mostly reached us, we should attribute
such _faults_ (as a geologist would call them) to anything rather than to
the deliberate design of the poets. Marlowe and Shakespeare, the two best
metrists among them, have given us a standard by which to measure what
licenses they took in versification,--the one in his translations, the
other in his poems. The unmanageable verses in Milton are very few, and
all of them occur in works printed after his blindness had lessened the
chances of supervision and increased those of error. There are only two,
indeed, which seem to me wholly indigestible as they stand. These are,
"Burnt after them to the bottomless pit,"
"With them from bliss to the bottomless deep."
This certainly looks like a case where a word had dropped out or had been
stricken out by some proof-reader who limited the number of syllables in
a pentameter verse by that of his finger-ends. Mr. Masson notices only
the first of these lines, and says that to make it regular by accenting
the word _bottomless_ on the second syllable would be "too horrible."
Certainly not, if Milton so accented it, any more than _blasphemous_ and
twenty more which sound oddly to us now. However that may be, Milton
could not have intended to close not only a period, but a paragraph also,
with an unmusical verse, and in the only other passage where the word
occurs it is accented as now on the first syllable:
"With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell."
As _bottom_ is a word which, like _bosom_ and _besom_, may be
monosyllabic or dissyllabic according to circumstances, I am persuaded
that the last passage quoted (and all three refer to the same event)
gives us the word wanting in the two others, and that Milton wrote, or
meant to write,--
"Burnt after them down to the bottomless pit,"
which leaves in the verse precisely the kind of ripple that Milton liked
Much of what Mr. Masson says in his Introduction of the way in which the
verses of Milton should be read is judicious enough, though some of the
examples he gives, of the "comicality" which would ensue from compressing
every verse into an exact measure of ten syllables, are based on a
surprising ignorance of the laws which guided our poets just before and
during Milton's time in the structure of their verses. Thus he seems to
think that a strict scansion would require us in the verses
"So he with difficulty and labor hard,"
"Carnation, purple, azure, or specked with gold,"
to pronounce _diffikty_ and _purp'_. Though Mr. Masson talks of "slurs
and elisions," his ear would seem somewhat insensible to their exact
nature or office. His _diffikty_ supposes a hiatus where none is
intended, and his making _purple_ of one syllable wrecks the whole verse,
the real slur in the latter case being on _azure or_. When he asks
whether Milton required "these pronunciations in his verse," no positive
answer can be given, but I very much doubt whether he would have thought
that some of the lines Mr. Masson cites "remain perfectly good Blank
Verse even with the most leisurely natural enunciation of the spare
syllable," and I am sure he would have stared if told that "the number of
accents" in a pentameter verse was "variable." It may be doubted whether
elisions and compressions which would be thought in bad taste or even
vulgar now were more abhorrent to the ears of Milton's generation than to
a cultivated Italian would be the hearing Dante read as prose. After all,
what Mr. Masson says may be reduced to the infallible axiom that poetry
should be read as poetry.
Mr. Masson seems to be right in his main principles, but the examples he
quotes make one doubt whether he knows what a verse is. For example, he
thinks it would be a "horror," if in the verse
"That invincible Samson far renowned"
we should lay the stress on the first syllable of _invincible_. It is
hard to see why this should be worse than _conventicle_ or _remonstrance_
or _successor_ or _incompatible_, (the three latter used by the correct
Daniel) or why Mr. Masson should clap an accent on _surface_ merely
because it comes at the end of a verse, and deny it to _invincible_. If
one read the verse just cited with those that go with it, he will find
that the accent _must_ come on the first syllable of _invincible_ or else
the whole passage becomes chaos. Should we refuse to say _obleeged_
with Pope because the fashion has changed? From its apparently greater
freedom in skilful hands, blank-verse gives more scope to sciolistic
theorizing and dogmatism than the rhyming pentameter couplet, but it is
safe to say that no verse is good in the one that would not be good in
the other when handled by a master like Dryden. Milton, like other great
poets, wrote some bad verses, and it is wiser to confess that they are so
than to conjure up some unimaginable reason why the reader should accept
them as the better for their badness. Such a bad verse is
"Rocks, caves, lakes, _fens_, bogs, _dens_ and shapes of death,"
which might be cited to illustrate Pope's
"And ten low words oft creep in one dull line."
Milton cannot certainly be taxed with any partiality for low words. He
rather loved them tall, as the Prussian King loved men to be six feet
high in their stockings, and fit to go into the grenadiers. He loved them
as much for their music as for their meaning,--perhaps more. His style,
therefore, when it has to deal with commoner things, is apt to grow a
little cumbrous and unwieldy. A Persian poet says that when the owl would
boast he boasts of catching mice at the edge of a hole. Shakespeare would
have understood this. Milton would have made him talk like an eagle. His
influence is not to be left out of account as partially contributing to
that decline toward poetic diction which was already beginning ere he
died. If it would not be fair to say that he is the most artistic, he may
be called in the highest sense the most scientific of our poets. If to
Spenser younger poets have gone to be sung-to, they have sat at the feet
of Milton to be taught. Our language has no finer poem than "Samson
Agonistes," if any so fine in the quality of austere dignity or in the
skill with which the poet's personal experience is generalized into a
Gentle as Milton's earlier portraits would seem to show him, he had in
him by nature, or bred into him by fate, something of the haughty and
defiant self-assertion of Dante and Michel Angelo. In no other English
author is the man so large a part of his works. Milton's haughty
conception of himself enters into all he says and does. Always the
necessity of this one man became that of the whole human race for the
moment. There were no walls so sacred but must go to the ground when _he_
wanted elbow-room; and he wanted a great deal. Did Mary Powell, the
cavalier's daughter, find the abode of a roundhead schoolmaster
_incompatible_ and leave it, forthwith the cry of the universe was for an
easier dissolution of the marriage covenant. If _he_ is blind, it is with
excess of light, it is a divine partiality, an over-shadowing with
angels' wings. Phineus and Teiresias are admitted among the prophets
because they, too, had lost their sight, and the blindness of Homer is of
more account than his Iliad. After writing in rhyme till he was past
fifty, he finds it unsuitable for his epic, and it at once becomes "the
invention of a barbarous age to set off wretched matter and lame metre."
If the structure of _his_ mind be undramatic, why, then, the English
drama is naught, learned Jonson, sweetest Shakespeare, and the rest
notwithstanding, and he will compose a tragedy on a Greek model with the
blinded Samson for its hero, and he will compose it partly in rhyme.
Plainly he belongs to the intenser kind of men whose yesterdays are in no
way responsible for their to-morrows. And this makes him perennially
interesting even to those who hate his politics, despise his Socinianism,
and find his greatest poem a bore. A new edition of his poems is always
welcome, for, as he is really great, he presents a fresh side to each new
student, and Mr. Masson, in his three handsome volumes, has given us,
with much that is superfluous and even erroneous, much more that is a
solid and permanent acquisition to our knowledge.
It results from the almost scornful withdrawal of Milton into the
fortress of his absolute personality that no great poet is so uniformly
self-conscious as he. We should say of Shakespeare that he had the power
of transforming himself into everything; of Milton, that he had that of
transforming everything into himself. Dante is individual rather than
self-conscious, and he, the cast-iron man, grows pliable as a field of
grain at the breath of Beatrice, and flows away in waves of sunshine. But
Milton never let himself go for a moment. As other poets are possessed by
their theme, so is he _self_-possessed, his great theme being John
Milton, and his great duty that of interpreter between him and the world.
I say it with all respect, for he was well worthy translation, and it is
out of Hebrew that the version is made. Pope says he makes God the Father
reason "like a school divine." The criticism is witty, but inaccurate. He
makes Deity a mouthpiece for his present theology, and had the poem been
written a few years later, the Almighty would have become more heterodox.
Since Dante, no one had stood on these visiting terms with heaven.
Now it is precisely this audacity of self-reliance, I suspect, which goes
far toward making the sublime, and which, falling by a hair's-breadth
short thereof, makes the ridiculous. Puritanism showed both the strength
and weakness of its prophetic nurture; enough of the latter to be scoffed
out of England by the very men it had conquered in the field, enough of
the former to intrench itself in three or four immortal memories. It has
left an abiding mark in politics and religion, but its great monuments
are the prose of Bunyan and the verse of Milton. It is a high inspiration
to be the neighbor of great events; to have been a partaker in them and
to have seen noble purposes by their own self-confidence become the very
means of ignoble ends, if it do not wholly depress, may kindle a passion
of regret deepening the song which dares not tell the reason of its
sorrow. The grand loneliness of Milton in his latter years, while it
makes him the most impressive figure in our literary history, is
reflected also in his maturer poems by a sublime independence of human
sympathy like that with which mountains fascinate and rebuff us. But it
is idle to talk of the loneliness of one the habitual companions of whose
mind were the Past and Future. I always seem to see him leaning in his
blindness a hand on the shoulder of each, sure that the one will guard
the song which the other had inspired.
 The Life of John Milton: narrated in Connection with the
Political, Ecclesiastical, and Literary History of his Time. By David
Masterson, M.D., LL.D. Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature
in the University of Edinburgh. Vols. I., II. 1638-1643. London and
New York: Macmillan & Co. 1871. 8vo. pp. xii, 608.
The Poetical Works of John Milton, edited, with Introduction, Notes
and an Essay on Milton's English by David Masson, M.A., LL.D.
Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature in the University of
Edinburgh. 3 vols. 8vo. Macmillan & Co. 1874.
 Book I. 562-567.
 Ibid., 615-618.
 Apology for Smectymnuus.
"For him I was not sent, nor yet to free
That people, victor once, now vile and base,
Deservedly made vassal."--P.R. IV. 131-133.
 If things are to be scanned so micrologically, what weighty
inferences might not be drawn from Mr. Masson's invariably printing
[Greek: _apax legomena_!]
"That you may tell heroes, when you come
To banquet with your wife."
_Chapman's Odyssey_, VIII. 336, 337.
In the facsimile of the sonnet to Fairfax I find
"Thy firm unshak'n vertue ever brings,"
which shows how much faith we need give to the apostrophe.
 Mr. Masson might have cited a good example of this from
Drummond, whom (as a Scotsman) he is fond of quoting for an authority
"Sleep, Silence' child, sweet father of soft rest."
The survival of _Horse_ for _horses_ is another example. So by a
reverse process _pult_ and _shay_ have been vulgarly deduced from the
supposed plurals _pulse_ and _chaise_.
 Chapman's spelling is presumably his own. At least he looked
after his printed texts. I have two copies of his "Byron's
Conspiracy," both dated 1608, but one evidently printed later than
the other, for it shows corrections. The more solemn ending in _ed_
was probably kept alive by the reading of the Bible in churches.
Though now dropped by the clergy, it is essential to the right
hearing of the more metrical passages in the Old Testament, which are
finer and more scientiflc than anything in the language, unless it be
some parts of "Samson Agonistes." I remember an old gentleman who
always used the contracted form of the participle in conversation,
but always gave it back its embezzled syllable in reading. Sir Thomas
Browne seems to have preferred the more solemn form. At any rate he
has the spelling _empuzzeled_ in prose.
 He thinks the same of the variation _strook_ and _struck_,
though they were probably pronounced alike. In Marlowe's "Faustus"
two consecutive sentences (in prose) begin with the words "Cursed be
he that struck." In a note on the passage Mr. Dyce tells us that the
old editions (there were three) have _stroke_ and _strooke_ in the
first instance, and all agree on _strucke_ in the second. No
inference can be drawn from such casualties.
 The lines are _not_ "from one of the Satires," and Milton made
them worse by misquoting and bringing _love_ jinglingly near to
_grove_. Hall's verse (in his Satires) is always vigorous and often
harmonious. He long before Milton spoke of rhyme almost in the very
terms of the preface to Paradise Lost.
 Mr. Masson goes so far as to conceive it possible that Milton
may have committed the vulgarism of leaving a _t_ out of _slep'st_,
"for ease of sound." Yet the poet could bear _boast'st_ and--one
stares and gasps at it--_doat'dst_. There is, by the way, a familiar
passage in which the _ch_ sound predominates, not without a touch of
_sh_, in a single couplet:--
"Can any mortal mixture of earth's mould
Breathe su_ch_ divine enchanting ravi_sh_ment?"
"Blotches and blains must all his flesh emboss,"
"I see his tents
Pitched about Sechem"
might be added.
 I think Coleridge's nice ear would have blamed the nearness of
_enemy_ and _calamity_ in this passage. Mr. Masson leaves out the
comma after _If not_, the pause of which is needful, I think, to the
sense, and certainly to keep _not_ a little farther apart from
_what_, ("teach each"!)
 "First in his East," is not soothing to the ear.
 There seems to be something wrong in this word _shores_. Did
Milton write _shoals_?
 But his etymological notes are worse. For example, "_recreant_,
renouncing the faith, from the old French _recroire_, which again is
from the mediaeval Latin _recredere_, to 'believe back,' or
apostatize." This is pure fancy. The word had no such meaning in
either language. He derives _serenate_ from _sera_, and says that
_parle_ means treaty, negotiation, though it is the same word as
_parley_, had the same meanings, and was commonly pronounced like it,
as in Marlowe's
"What, shall we _parle_ with this Christian?"
It certainly never meant _treaty_, though it may have meant
_negotiation_. When it did it implied the meeting face to face of the
principals. On the verses
"And some flowers and some bays
For thy hearse to strew the ways,"
he has a note to tell us that _hearse_ is not to be taken "in our
sense of a carriage for the dead, but in the older sense of a tomb or
framework over a tomb," though the obvious meaning is "to strew the
ways for thy hearse." How could one do that for a tomb or the
framework over it?
 A passage from Dante (Inferno, XI. 96-105), with its reference
to Aristotle, would have given him the meaning of "Nature taught
art," which seems to puzzle him. A study of Dante and of his earlier
commentators would also have been of great service in the
 Almost every combination of two vowels might in those days be a
diphthong or not, at will. Milton's practice of elision was confirmed
and sometimes (perhaps) modified by his study of the Italians, with
whose usage in this respect he closely conforms.
 Letter to Rev. W. Bagot, 4th January, 1791.
 So Dante:--
"Ma sapienza e amore e virtute."
"Simony and sodomy in churchmen's lives."
 Mr. Masson is evidently not very familiar at first hand with
the versification to which Milton's youthful ear had been trained,
but seems to have learned something from Abbott's "Shakespearian
Grammar" in the interval between writing his notes and his
Introduction. Walker's "Shakespeare's Versification" would have been
a great help to him in default of original knowledge.
 Milton has a verse in Comus where the _e_ is elided from the
word _sister_ by its preceding a vowel:--
"Heaven keep my sister! again, again, and near!"
This would have been impossible before a consonant.
 So _spirito_ and _spirto_ in Italian, _esperis_ and _espirs_ in
 Milton, however, would not have balked at _th' bottomless_ any
more than Drayton at _th' rejected_ or Donne at _th' sea_. Mr. Masson
does not seem to understand this elision, for he corrects _i' th'
midst_ to _i' the midst_, and takes pains to mention it in a note. He
might better have restored the _n_ in _i'_, where it is no
contraction, but merely indicates the pronunciation, as _o'_ for _of_
 Exactly analogous to that in treasurer when it is shortened to
 Milton himself has _invisible_, for we cannot suppose him
guilty of a verse like
"Shoots invisible virtue even to the deep,"
while, if read rightly, it has just one of those sweeping elisions
that he loved.
There are few poets whose works contain slighter hints of their personal
history than those of Keats; yet there are, perhaps, even fewer whose
real lives, or rather the conditions upon which they lived, are more
clearly traceable in what they have written. To write the life of a man
was formerly understood to mean the cataloguing and placing of
circumstances, of those things which stood about the life and were more
or less related to it, but were not the life itself. But Biography from
day to day holds dates cheaper and facts dearer. A man's life, so far as
its outward events are concerned, may be made for him, as his clothes are
by the tailor, of this cut or that, of finer or coarser material; but the
gait and gesture show through, and give to trappings, in themselves
characterless, an individuality that belongs to the man himself. It is
those essential facts which underlie the life and make the individual man
that are of importance, and it is the cropping out of these upon the
surface that gives us indications by which to judge of the true nature
hidden below. Every man has his block given him, and the figure he cuts
will depend very much upon the shape of that,--upon the knots and twists
which existed in it from the beginning. We were designed in the cradle,
perhaps earlier, and it is in finding out this design, and shaping
ourselves to it, that our years are spent wisely. It is the vain endeavor
to make ourselves what we are not that has strewn history with so many
broken purposes and lives left in the rough.
Keats hardly lived long enough to develop a well-outlined character, for
that results commonly from the resistance made by temperament to the many
influences by which the world, as it may happen then to be, endeavors to
mould every one in its own image. What his temperament was we can see
clearly, and also that it subordinated itself more and more to the
discipline of art.
* * * * *
John Keats, the second of four children, like Chaucer and Spenser, was a
Londoner, but, unlike them, he was certainly not of gentle blood. Lord
Houghton, who seems to have had a kindly wish to create him gentleman by
brevet, says that he was "born in the upper ranks of the middle class."
This shows a commendable tenderness for the nerves of English society,
and reminds one of Northcote's story of the violin-player who, wishing to
compliment his pupil, George III., divided all fiddlers into three
classes,--those who could not play at all, those who played very badly,
and those who played very well,--assuring his Majesty that he had made
such commendable progress as to have already reached the second rank. We
shall not be too greatly shocked by knowing that the father of Keats (as
Lord Houghton had told us in an earlier biography) "was employed in the
establishment of Mr. Jennings, the proprietor of large livery-stables on
the Pavement in Moorfields, nearly opposite the entrance into Finsbury
Circus." So that, after all, it was not so bad; for, first, Mr. Jennings
was a _proprietor_; second, he was the proprietor of an _establishment_;
third, he was the proprietor of a _large_ establishment; and fourth, this
large establishment was _nearly_ opposite Finsbury Circus,--a name which
vaguely dilates the imagination with all sorts of potential grandeurs. It
is true Leigh Hunt asserts that Keats "was a little too sensitive on the
score of his origin," but we can find no trace of such a feeling
either in his poetry or in such of his letters as have been printed. We
suspect the fact to have been that he resented with becoming pride the
vulgar Blackwood and Quarterly standard, which measured genius by
genealogies. It is enough that his poetical pedigree is of the best,
tracing through Spenser to Chaucer, and that Pegasus does not stand at
livery even in the largest establishments in Moorfields.
As well as we can make out, then, the father of Keats was a groom in the
service of Mr. Jennings, and married the daughter of his master. Thus, on
the mother's side, at least, we find a grandfather, on the father's there
is no hint of such an ancestor, and we must charitably take him for
granted. It is of more importance that the elder Keats was a man of sense
and energy, and that his wife was a "lively and intelligent woman, who
hastened the birth of the poet by her passionate love of amusement,"
bringing him into the world, a seven-months' child, on the 29th October,
1795, instead of the 29th of December, as would have been conventionally
proper. Lord Houghton describes her as "tall, with a large oval face, and
a somewhat saturnine demeanour." This last circumstance does not agree
very well with what he had just before told us of her liveliness, but he
consoles us by adding that "she succeeded, _however_, in inspiring her
children with the profoundest affection." This was particularly true of
John, who once, when between four and five years old, mounted guard at
her chamber door with an old sword, when she was ill and the doctor had
ordered her not to be disturbed.
In 1804, Keats being in his ninth year, his father was killed by a fall
from his horse. His mother seems to have been ambitious for her children,
and there was some talk of sending John to Harrow. Fortunately this plan
was thought too expensive, and he was sent instead to the school of Mr.
Clarke at Enfield with his brothers. A maternal uncle, who had
distinguished himself by his courage under Duncan at Camperdown, was the
hero of his nephews, and they went to school resolved to maintain the
family reputation for courage. John was always fighting, and was chiefly
noted among his school-fellows as a strange compound of pluck and
sensibility. He attacked an usher who had boxed his brother's ears; and
when his mother died, in 1810, was moodily inconsolable, hiding himself
for several days in a nook under the master's desk, and refusing all
comfort from teacher or friend.
He was popular at school, as boys of spirit always are, and impressed his
companions with a sense of his power. They thought he would one day be a
famous soldier. This may have been owing to the stories he told them of
the heroic uncle, whose deeds, we may be sure, were properly famoused by
the boy Homer, and whom they probably took for an admiral at the least,
as it would have been well for Keats's literary prosperity if he had
been. At any rate, they thought John would be a great man, which is the
main thing, for the public opinion of the playground is truer and more
discerning than that of the world, and if you tell us what the boy was,
we will tell you what the man longs to be, however he may be repressed by
necessity or fear of the police reports.
Lord Houghton has failed to discover anything else especially worthy of
record in the school-life of Keats. He translated the twelve books of the
Aeneid, read Robinson Crusoe and the Incas of Peru, and looked into
Shakespeare. He left school in 1810, with little Latin and no Greek, but
he had studied Spence's Polymetis, Tooke's Pantheon, and Lempriere's
Dictionary, and knew gods, nymphs, and heroes, which were quite as good
company perhaps for him as artists and aspirates. It is pleasant to fancy
the horror of those respectable writers if their pages could suddenly
have become alive tinder their pens with all that the young poet saw in
On leaving school he was apprenticed for five years to a surgeon at
Edmonton. His master was a Mr. Hammond, "of some eminence" in his
profession, as Lord Houghton takes care to assure us. The place was of
more importance than the master, for its neighborhood to Enfield enabled
him to keep up his intimacy with the family of his former teacher, Mr.
Clarke, and to borrow books of them. In 1812, when he was in his
seventeenth year, Mr. Charles Cowden Clarke lent him the "Faerie Queene."
Nothing that is told of Orpheus or Amphion is more wonderful than this
miracle of Spenser's, transforming a surgeon's apprentice into a great
poet. Keats learned at once the secret of his birth, and henceforward his
indentures ran to Apollo instead of Mr. Hammond. Thus could the Muse
defend her son. It is the old story,--the lost heir discovered by his
aptitude for what is gentle and knightly. Haydon tells us "that he used
sometimes to say to his brother he feared he should never be a poet, and
if he was not he would destroy himself." This was perhaps a
half-conscious reminiscence of Chatterton, with whose genius and fate he
had an intense sympathy, it may be from an inward foreboding of the
shortness of his own career.
Before long we find him studying Chaucer, then Shakespeare, and afterward
Milton. But Chapman's translations had a more abiding influence on his
style both for good and evil. That he read wisely, his comments on the
"Paradise Lost" are enough to prove. He now also commenced poet himself,
but does not appear to have neglected the study of his profession. He was
a youth of energy and purpose, and though he no doubt penned many a
stanza when he should have been anatomizing, and walked the hospitals
accompanied by the early gods, nevertheless passed a very creditable
examination in 1817. In the spring of this year, also, he prepared to
take his first degree as poet, and accordingly published a small volume
containing a selection of his earlier essays in verse. It attracted
little attention, and the rest of this year seems to have been occupied
with a journey on foot in Scotland, and the composition of "Endymion,"
which was published in 1818. Milton's "Tetrachordon" was not better
abused; but Milton's assailants were unorganized, and were obliged each
to print and pay for his own dingy little quarto, trusting to the natural
laws of demand and supply to furnish him with readers. Keats was
arraigned by the constituted authorities of literary justice. They might
be, nay, they were Jeffrieses and Scroggses, but the sentence was
published, and the penalty inflicted before all England. The difference
between his fortune and Milton's was that between being pelted by a mob
of personal enemies and being set in the pillory. In the first case, the
annoyance brushes off mostly with the mud; in the last, there is no
solace but the consciousness of suffering in a great cause. This solace,
to a certain extent, Keats had; for his ambition was noble, and he hoped
not to make a great reputation, but to be a great poet. Haydon says that
Wordsworth and Keats were the only men he had ever seen who looked
conscious of a lofty purpose.
It is curious that men should resent more fiercely what they suspect to
be good verses, than what they know to be bad morals. Is it because they
feel themselves incapable of the one and not of the other? Probably a
certain amount of honest loyalty to old idols in danger of dethronement
is to be taken into account, and quite as much of the cruelty of
criticism is due to want of thought as to deliberate injustice. However
it be, the best poetry has been the most savagely attacked, and men who
scrupulously practised the Ten Commandments as if there were never a
_not_ in any of them, felt every sentiment of their better nature
outraged by the "Lyrical Ballads." It is idle to attempt to show that
Keats did not suffer keenly from the vulgarities of Blackwood and the
Quarterly. He suffered in proportion as his ideal was high, and he was
conscious of falling below it. In England, especially, it is not pleasant
to be ridiculous, even if you are a lord; but to be ridiculous and an
apothecary at the same time is almost as bad as it was formerly to be
excommunicated. _A priori_, there was something absurd in poetry written
by the son of an assistant in the livery-stables of Mr. Jennings, even
though they were an establishment, and a large establishment, and nearly
opposite Finsbury Circus. Mr. Gifford, the ex-cobbler, thought so in the
Quarterly, and Mr. Terry, the actor, thought so even more distinctly
in Blackwood, bidding the young apothecary "back to his gallipots!" It is
not pleasant to be talked down upon by your inferiors who happen to have
the advantage of position, nor to be drenched with ditchwater, though you
know it to be thrown by a scullion in a garret.
Keats, as his was a temperament in which sensibility was excessive, could
not but be galled by this treatment. He was galled the more that he was
also a man of strong sense, and capable of understanding clearly how hard
it is to make men acknowledge solid value in a person whom they have once
heartily laughed at. Reputation is in itself only a farthing-candle, of
wavering and uncertain flame, and easily blown out, but it is the light
by which the world looks for and finds merit. Keats longed for fame, but
longed above all to deserve it. To his friend Taylor he writes, "There is
but one way for me. The road lies through study, application, and
thought." Thrilling with the electric touch of sacred leaves, he saw in
vision, like Dante, that small procession of the elder poets to which
only elect centuries can add another laurelled head. Might he, too,
deserve from posterity the love and reverence which he paid to those
antique glories? It was no unworthy ambition, but everything was against
him,--birth, health, even friends, since it was partly on their account
that he was sneered at. His very name stood in his way, for Fame loves
best such, syllables as are sweet and sonorous on the tongue, like
Spenserian, Shakespearian. In spite of Juliet, there is a great deal in
names, and when the fairies come with their gifts to the cradle of the
selected child, let one, wiser than the rest, choose a name for him from
which well-sounding derivatives can be made, and, best of all, with a
termination in _on_. Men judge the current coin of opinion by the ring,
and are readier to take without question whatever is Platonic, Baconian,
Newtonian, Johnsonian, Washingtonian, Jeffersonian, Napoleonic, and all
the rest. You cannot make a good adjective out of Keats,--the more
pity,--and to say a thing is _Keatsy_ is to contemn it. Fortune likes
Haydon tells us that Keats was very much depressed by the fortunes of his
book. This was natural enough, but he took it all in a manly way, and
determined to revenge himself by writing better poetry. He knew that
activity, and not despondency, is the true counterpoise to misfortune.
Haydon is sure of the change in his spirits, because he would come to the
painting-room and sit silent for hours. But we rather think that the
conversation, where Mr. Haydon was, resembled that in a young author's
first play, where the other interlocutors are only brought in as
convenient points for the hero to hitch the interminable web of his
monologue upon. Besides, Keats had been continuing his education this
year, by a course of Elgin marbles and pictures by the great Italians,
and might very naturally have found little to say about Mr. Haydon's
extensive works, that he would have cared to hear. Lord Houghton, on the
other hand, in his eagerness to prove that Keats was not killed by the
article in the Quarterly, is carried too far toward the opposite extreme,
and more than hints that he was not even hurt by it. This would have been
true of Wordsworth, who, by a constant companionship with mountains, had
acquired something of their manners, but was simply impossible to a man
of Keats's temperament.
On the whole, perhaps, we need not respect Keats the less for having been
gifted with sensibility, and may even say what we believe to be true,
that his health was injured by the failure of his book. A man cannot have
a sensuous nature and be pachydermatous at the same time, and if he be
imaginative as well as sensuous, he suffers just in proportion to the
amount of his imagination. It is perfectly true that what we call the
world, in these affairs, is nothing more than a mere Brocken spectre, the
projected shadow of ourselves; but as long as we do not know it, it is a
very passable giant. We are not without experience of natures so purely
intellectual that their bodies had no more concern in their mental doings
and sufferings than a house has with the good or ill fortune of its
occupant. But poets are not built on this plan, and especially poets like
Keats, in whom the moral seems to have so perfectly interfused the
physical man, that you might almost say he could feel sorrow with his
hands, so truly did his body, like that of Donne's Mistress Boulstred,
think and remember and forebode. The healthiest poet of whom our
civilization has been capable says that when he beholds
"desert a beggar born,
And strength by limping sway disabled,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,"
alluding, plainly enough, to the Giffords of his day,
"And simple truth miscalled simplicity,"
as it was long afterward in Wordsworth's case,
"And captive Good attending Captain Ill,"
that then even he, the poet to whom, of all others, life seems to have
been dearest, as it was also the fullest of enjoyment, "tired of all
these," had nothing for it but to cry for "restful Death."
Keats, to all appearance, accepted his ill fortune courageously. He
certainly did not overestimate "Endymion," and perhaps a sense of humor
which was not wanting in him may have served as a buffer against the too
importunate shock of disappointment. "He made Ritchie promise," says
Haydon, "he would carry his 'Endymion' to the great desert of Sahara and
fling it in the midst." On the 9th October, 1818, he writes to his
publisher, Mr. Hessey, "I cannot but feel indebted to those gentlemen who
have taken my part. As for the rest, I begin to get acquainted with my
own strength and weakness. Praise or blame has but a momentary effect on
the man whose love of beauty in the abstract makes him a severe critic of
his own works. My own domestic criticism has given me pain without
comparison beyond what Blackwood or the Quarterly could inflict; and
also, when I feel I am right, no external praise can give me such a glow
as my own solitary reperception and ratification of what is fine. J.S. is
perfectly right in regard to 'the slipshod Endymion.' That it is so is no
fault of mine. No! though it may sound a little paradoxical, it is as
good as I had power to make it by myself. Had I been nervous about its
being a perfect piece, and with that view asked advice and trembled over
every page, it would not have been written; for it is not in my nature to
fumble. 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. It cannot be
matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself.
That which is creative must create itself. In 'Endymion' I leaped
headlong into the sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the
soundings, the quicksands, and the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the
green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea and comfortable advice.
I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among
This was undoubtedly true, and it was naturally the side which a
large-minded person would display to a friend. This is what he thought,
but whether it was what he _felt_, I think doubtful. I look upon it
rather as one of the phenomena of that multanimous nature of the poet,
which makes him for the moment that of which he has an intellectual
perception. Elsewhere he says something which seems to hint at the true
state of the case. "I must think that difficulties nerve the spirit of a
man: _they make our prime objects a refuge as well as a passion_." One
cannot help contrasting Keats with Wordsworth,--the one altogether poet;
the other essentially a Wordsworth, with the poetic faculty added,--the
one shifting from form to form, and from style to style, and pouring his
hot throbbing life into every mould; the other remaining always the
individual, producing works, and not so much living in his poems as
memorially recording his life in them. When Wordsworth alludes to the
foolish criticisms on his writings, he speaks serenely and generously of
Wordsworth the poet, as if he were an unbiassed third person, who takes
up the argument merely in the interest of literature. He towers into a
bald egotism which is quite above and beyond selfishness. Poesy was his
employment; it was Keats's very existence, and he felt the rough
treatment of his verses as if it had been the wounding of a limb. To
Wordsworth, composing was a healthy exercise, his slow pulse and
imperturbable self trust gave him assurance of a life so long that he
could wait, and when we read his poems we should never suspect the
existence in him of any sense but that of observation, as if Wordsworth
the poet were a half-mad land-surveyor, accompanied by Mr. Wordsworth the
distributor of stamps, as a kind of keeper. But every one of Keats's
poems was a sacrifice of vitality, a virtue went away from him into every
one of them; even yet, as we turn the leaves, they seem to warm and
thrill our fingers with the flush of his fine senses, and the flutter of
his electrical nerves, and we do not wonder he felt that what he did was
to be done swiftly.
In the mean time his younger brother languished and died, his elder seems
to have been in some way unfortunate and had gone to America, and Keats
himself showed symptoms of the hereditary disease which caused his death
at last. It is in October, 1818, that we find the first allusion to a
passion which was, erelong, to consume him It is plain enough beforehand,
that those were not moral or mental graces that should attract a man like
Keats. His intellect was satisfied and absorbed by his art, his books,
and his friends He could have companionship and appreciation from men;
what he craved of woman was only repose. That luxurious nature, which
would have tossed uneasily on a crumpled rose leaf, must have something
softer to rest upon than intellect, something less ethereal than culture.
It was his body that needed to have its equilibrium restored, the waste
of his nervous energy that must be repaired by deep draughts of the
overflowing life and drowsy tropical force of an abundant and healthily
poised womanhood. Writing to his sister-in-law, he says of this nameless
person: "She is not a Cleopatra, but is, at least, a Charmian; she has a
rich Eastern look; she has fine eyes and fine manners. When she comes
into a room she makes the same impression as the beauty of a leopardess.
She is too fine and too conscious of herself to repulse any man who may
address her. From habit, she thinks that _nothing particular_. I always
find myself at ease with such a woman; the picture before me always gives
me a life and animation which I cannot possibly feel with anything
inferior. I am at such times too much occupied in admiring to be awkward
or in a tremble. I forget myself entirely, because I live in her. You
will by this time think I am in love with her, so, before I go any
farther, I will tell you that I am not. She kept me awake one night, as a
tune of Mozart's might do. I speak of the thing as a pastime and an
amusement, than which I can feel none deeper than a conversation with an
imperial woman, the very _yes_ and _no_ of whose life is to me a
banquet.... I like her and her like, because one has no _sensation_; what
we both are is taken for granted.... She walks across a room in such a
manner that a man is drawn toward her with magnetic power.... I believe,
though, she has faults, the same as a Cleopatra or a Charmian might have
had. Yet she is a fine thing, speaking in a worldly way; for there are
two distinct tempers of mind in which we judge of things,--the worldly,
theatrical, and pantomimical; and the unearthly, spiritual, and ethereal.
In the former, Bonaparte, Lord Byron, and this Charmian hold the first
place in our minds; in the latter, John Howard, Bishop Hooker rocking his
child's cradle, and you, my dear sister, are the conquering feelings. As
a man of the world, I love the rich talk of a Charmian; as an eternal
being, I love the thought of you. I should like her to ruin me, and I
should like you to save me."
It is pleasant always to see Love hiding his head with such pains, while
his whole body is so clearly visible, as in this extract. This lady, it
seems, is not a Cleopatra, only a Charmian; but presently we find that
she is imperial. He does not love her, but he would just like to be
ruined by her, nothing more. This glimpse of her, with her leopardess
beauty, crossing the room and drawing men after her magnetically, is all
we have. She seems to have been still living in 1848, and as Lord
Houghton tells us, kept the memory of the poet sacred. "She is an
East-Indian," Keats says, "and ought to be her grandfather's heir." Her
name we do not know. It appears from Dilke's "Papers of a Critic" that
they were betrothed: "It is quite a settled thing between John Keats and
Miss ----. God help them. It is a bad thing for them. The mother says she
cannot prevent it, and that her only hope is that it will go off. He
don't like any one to look at her or to speak to her." Alas, the tropical
warmth became a consuming fire!
"His passion cruel grown took on a hue
Fierce and sanguineous."
Between this time and the spring of 1820 he seems to have worked
assiduously. Of course, worldly success was of more importance than ever.
He began "Hyperion," but had given it up in September, 1819, because, as
he said, "there were too many Miltonic inversions in it." He wrote
"Lamia" after an attentive study of Dryden's versification. This period
also produced the "Eve of St. Agnes," "Isabella," and the odes to the
"Nightingale" and to the "Grecian Urn." He studied Italian, read Ariosto,
and wrote part of a humorous poem, "The Cap and Bells." He tried his hand
at tragedy, and Lord Houghton has published among his "Remains," "Otho
the Great," and all that was ever written of "King Stephen." We think he
did unwisely, for a biographer is hardly called upon to show how ill his
_biographee_ could do anything.
In the winter of 1820 he was chilled in riding on the top of a
stage-coach, and came home in a state of feverish excitement. He was
persuaded to go to bed, and in getting between the cold sheets, coughed
slightly. "That is blood in my mouth," he said; "bring me the candle; let
me see this blood." It was of a brilliant red, and his medical knowledge
enabled him to interpret the augury. Those narcotic odors that seem to
breathe seaward, and steep in repose the senses of the voyager who is
drifting toward the shore of the mysterious Other World, appeared to
envelop him, and, looking up with sudden calmness, he said, "I know the
color of that blood; it is arterial blood; I cannot be deceived in that
color. That drop is my death-warrant; I must die."
There was a slight rally during the summer of that year, but toward
autumn he grew worse again, and it was decided that he should go to
Italy. He was accompanied thither by his friend, Mr. Severn, an artist.
After embarking, he wrote to his friend, Mr. Brown. We give a part of
this letter, which is so deeply tragic that the sentences we take almost
seem to break away from the rest with a cry of anguish, like the branches
of Dante's lamentable wood.
"I wish to write on subjects that will not agitate me much. There is one
I must mention and have done with it. Even if my body would recover of
itself, this would prevent it. The very thing which I want to live most
for will be a great occasion of my death. I cannot help it. Who can help
it? Were I in health it would make me ill, and how can I bear it in my
state? I dare say you will be able to guess on what subject I am
harping,--you know what was my greatest pain during the first part of my
illness at your house I wish for death every day and night to deliver me
from these pains, and then I wish death away, for death would destroy
even those pains, which are better than nothing. Land and sea, weakness
and decline, are great separators, but Death is the great divorcer
forever. When the pang of this thought has passed through my mind, I may
say the bitterness of death is passed. I often wish for you, that you
might flatter me with the best. I think, without my mentioning it, for my
sake, you would be a, friend to Miss ---- when I am dead. You think she
has many faults, but for my sake think she has not one. If there is
anything you can do for her by word or deed I know you will do it. I am
in a state at present in which woman, merely as woman, can have no more
power over me than stocks and stones, and yet the difference of my
sensations with respect to Miss ---- and my sister is amazing,--the one
seems to absorb the other to a degree incredible. I seldom think of my
brother and sister in America; the thought of leaving Miss ---- is beyond
everything horrible,--the sense of darkness coming over me,--I eternally
see her figure eternally vanishing, some of the phrases she was in the
habit of using during my last nursing at Wentworth Place ring in my ears.
Is there another life? Shall I awake and find all this a dream? There
must be; we cannot be created for this sort of suffering."
To the same friend he writes again from Naples, 1st November, 1820:--
"The persuasion that I shall see her no more will kill me. My dear Brown,
I should have had her when I was in health, and I should have remained
well. I can bear to die,--I cannot bear to leave her. O God! God! God!
Everything 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.
There is nothing in the world of sufficient interest to divert me from
her a moment. This was the case when I was in England, I cannot
recollect, without shuddering, the time that I was a prisoner at Hunt's,
and used to keep my eyes fixed on Hampstead all day. Then there was a
good hope of seeing her again,--now!--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. My dear Brown, what
am I to do? Where can I look for consolation or ease? If I had any chance
of recovery, this passion would kill me. Indeed, through the whole of my
illness, both at your house and at Kentish Town, this fever has never
ceased wearing me out."
The two friends went almost immediately from Naples to Rome, where Keats
was treated with great kindness by the distinguished physician, Dr.
(afterward Sir James) Clark. But there was no hope from the first.
His disease was beyond remedy, as his heart was beyond comfort. The very
fact that life might be happy deepened his despair. He might not have
sunk so soon, but the waves in which he was struggling looked only the
blacker that they were shone upon by the signal-torch that promised
safety and love and rest.
It is good to know that one of Keats's last pleasures was in hearing
Severn read aloud from a volume of Jeremy Taylor. On first coming to
Rome, he had bought a copy of Alfieri, but, finding on the second page
"Misera me! sollievo a me non resta
Altro che il pianto, ed il pianto e delitto,"
he laid down the book and opened it no more. On the 14th February, 1821,
Severn speaks of a change that had taken place in him toward greater
quietness and peace. He talked much, and fell at last into a sweet sleep,
in which he seemed to have happy dreams. Perhaps he heard the soft
footfall of the angel of Death, pacing to and fro under his window, to be
his Valentine. That night he asked to have this epitaph inscribed upon
"HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER."
On the 23d he died, without pain and as if falling asleep. His last words
were, "I am dying; I shall die easy; don't be frightened, be firm and
thank God it has come!"
He was buried in the Protestant burial-ground at Rome, in that part of it
which is now disused and secluded from the rest. A short time before his
death he told Severn that he thought his intensest pleasure in life had
been to watch the growth of flowers; and once, after lying peacefully
awhile, he said, "I feel the flowers growing over me." His grave is
marked by a little headstone on which are carved somewhat rudely his name
and age, and the epitaph dictated by himself. No tree or shrub has been
planted near it, but the daisies, faithful to their buried lover, crowd
his small mound with a galaxy of their innocent stars, more prosperous
than those under which he lived. In person, Keats was below the
middle height, with a head small in proportion to the breadth of his
shoulders. His hair was brown and fine, falling in natural ringlets about
a face in which energy and sensibility were remarkably mixed. Every
feature was delicately cut; the chin was bold; and about the mouth
something of a pugnacious expression. His eyes were mellow and glowing,
large, dark, and sensitive. At the recital of a noble action or a
beautiful thought they would suffuse with tears, and his mouth
trembled. Haydon says that his eyes had an inward Delphian look that
was perfectly divine.
The faults of Keats's poetry are obvious enough, but it should be
remembered that he died at twenty-five, and that he offends by
superabundance and not poverty. That he was overlanguaged at first there
can be no doubt, and in this was implied the possibility of falling back
to the perfect mean of diction. It is only by the rich that the costly
plainness, which at once satisfies the taste and the imagination, is
Whether Keats was original or not, I do not think it useful to discuss
until it has been settled what originality is. Lord Houghton tells us
that this merit (whatever it is) has been denied to Keats, because his
poems take the color of the authors he happened to be reading at the time
he wrote them. But men have their intellectual ancestry, and the likeness
of some one of them is forever unexpectedly flashing out in the features
of a descendant, it may be after a gap of several generations. In the
parliament of the present every man represents a constituency of the
past. It is true that Keats has the accent of the men from whom he
learned to speak, but this is to make originality a mere question of
externals, and in this sense the author of a dictionary might bring an
action of trover against every author who used his words. It is the man
behind the words that gives them value, and if Shakespeare help himself
to a verse or a phrase, it is with ears that have learned of him to
listen that we feel the harmony of the one, and it is the mass of his
intellect that makes the other weighty with meaning. Enough that we
recognize in Keats that indefinable newness and unexpectedness which we
call genius. The sunset is original every evening, though for thousands
of years it has built out of the same light and vapor its visionary
cities with domes and pinnacles, and its delectable mountains which night
shall utterly abase and destroy.
Three men, almost contemporaneous with each other,--Wordsworth, Keats,
and Byron,--were the great means of bringing back English poetry from the
sandy deserts of rhetoric, and recovering for her her triple inheritance
of simplicity, sensuousness, and passion. Of these, Wordsworth was the
only conscious reformer, and his hostility to the existing formalism
injured his earlier poems by tingeing them with something of iconoclastic
extravagance. He was the deepest thinker, Keats the most essentially a
poet, and Byron the most keenly intellectual of the three. Keats had the
broadest mind, or at least his mind was open on more sides, and he was
able to understand Wordsworth and judge Byron, equally conscious, through
his artistic sense, of the greatnesses of the one and the many
littlenesses of the other, while Wordsworth was isolated in a feeling of
his prophetic character, and Byron had only an uneasy and jealous
instinct of contemporary merit. The poems of Wordsworth, as he was the
most individual, accordingly reflect the moods of his own nature; those
of Keats, from sensitiveness of organization, the moods of his own taste
and feeling; and those of Byron, who was impressible chiefly through the
understanding, the intellectual and moral wants of the time in which he
lived. Wordsworth has influenced most the ideas of succeeding poets;
Keats, their forms; and Byron, interesting to men of imagination less for
his writings than for what his writings indicate, reappears no more in
poetry, but presents an ideal to youth made restless with vague desires
not yet regulated by experience nor supplied with motives by the duties
Keats certainly had more of the penetrative and sympathetic imagination
which belongs to the poet, of that imagination which identifies itself
with the momentary object of its contemplation, than any man of these
later days. It is not merely that he has studied the Elizabethans and
caught their turn of thought, but that he really sees things with their
sovereign eye, and feels them with their electrified senses. His
imagination was his bliss and bane. Was he cheerful, he "hops about the
gravel with the sparrows"; was he morbid, he "would reject a Petrarcal
coronation,--on account of my dying day, and because women have cancers."
So impressible was he as to say that he "had no nature," meaning
character. But he knew what the faculty was worth, and says finely, "The
imagination may be compared to Adam's dream: he awoke and found it
truth." He had an unerring instinct for the poetic uses of things, and
for him they had no other use. We are apt to talk of the classic
_renaissance_ as of a phenomenon long past, nor ever to be renewed, and
to think the Greeks and Romans alone had the mighty magic to work such a
miracle. To me one of the most interesting aspects of Keats is that in
him we have an example of the _renaissance_ going on almost under our own
eyes, and that the intellectual ferment was in him kindled by a purely
English leaven. He had properly no scholarship, any more than Shakespeare
had, but like him he assimilated at a touch whatever could serve his
purpose. His delicate senses absorbed culture at every pore. Of the
self-denial to which he trained himself (unexampled in one so young) the
second draft of Hyperion as compared with the first is a conclusive
proof. And far indeed is his "Lamia" from the lavish indiscrimination of
"Endymion." In his Odes he showed a sense of form and proportion which we
seek vainly in almost any other English poet, and some of his sonnets
(taking all qualities into consideration) are the most perfect in our
language. No doubt there is something tropical and of strange overgrowth
in his sudden maturity, but it _was_ maturity nevertheless. Happy the
young poet who has the saving fault of exuberance, if he have also the
shaping faculty that sooner or later will amend it!
As every young person goes through all the world-old experiences,
fancying them something peculiar and personal to himself, so it is with
every new generation, whose youth always finds its representatives in its
poets. Keats rediscovered the delight and wonder that lay enchanted in
the dictionary. Wordsworth revolted at the poetic diction which he found
in vogue, but his own language rarely rises above it, except when it is
upborne by the thought. Keats had an instinct for fine words, which are
in themselves pictures and ideas, and had more of the power of poetic
expression than any modern English poet. And by poetic expression I do
not mean merely a vividness in particulars, but the right feeling which
heightens or subdues a passage or a whole poem to the proper tone, and
gives entireness to the effect. There is a great deal more than is
commonly supposed in this choice of words. Men's thoughts and opinions
are in a great degree vassals of him who invents a new phrase or
reapplies an old epithet. The thought or feeling a thousand times
repeated becomes his at last who utters it best. This power of language
is veiled in the old legends which make the invisible powers the servants
of some word. As soon as we have discovered the word for our joy or
sorrow we are no longer its serfs, but its lords. We reward the
discoverer of an anaesthetic for the body and make him member of all the
societies, but him who finds a nepenthe for the soul we elect into the
small academy of the immortals.
The poems of Keats mark an epoch in English poetry; for, however often we
may find traces of it in others, in them found its most unconscious
expression that reaction against the barrel-organ style which had been
reigning by a kind of sleepy divine right for half a century. The lowest
point was indicated when there was such an utter confounding of the
common and the uncommon sense that Dr. Johnson wrote verse and Burke
prose. The most profound gospel of criticism was, that nothing was good
poetry that could not be translated into good prose, as if one should say
that the test of sufficient moonlight was that tallow-candles could be
made of it. We find Keats at first going to the other extreme, and
endeavoring to extract green cucumbers from the rays of tallow; but we
see also incontestable proof of the greatness and purity of his poetic
gift in the constant return toward equilibrium and repose in his later
poems. And it is a repose always lofty and clear-aired, like that of the
eagle balanced in incommunicable sunshine. In him a vigorous
understanding developed itself in equal measure with the divine faculty;
thought emancipated itself from expression without becoming its tyrant;
and music and meaning floated together, accordant as swan and shadow, on
the smooth element of his verse. Without losing its sensuousness, his
poetry refined itself and grew more inward, and the sensational was
elevated into the typical by the control of that finer sense which
underlies the senses and is the spirit of them.
 Hunt's Autobiography (Am. ed.), Vol. II. p. 36.
 Haydon tells the story differently, but I think Lord Houghton's
version the best.
 There is always some one willing to make himself a sort of
accessary after the fact in any success; always an old woman or two,
ready to remember omens of all quantities and qualities in the
childhood of persons who have become distinguished. Accordingly, a
certain "Mrs. Grafty, of Craven Street, Finsbury," assures Mr. George
Keats, when he tells her that John is determined to be a poet, "that
this was very odd, because when he could just speak, instead of
answering questions put to him, he would always make a rhyme to the
last word people said, and then laugh." The early histories of
heroes, like those of nations, are always more or less mythical, and
I give the story for what it is worth. Doubtless there is a gleam of
intelligence in it, for the old lady pronounces it odd that any one
should _determine_ to be a poet, and seems to have wished to hint
that the matter was determined earlier and by a higher disposing
power. There are few children who do not soon discover the charm of
rhyme, and perhaps fewer who can resist making fun of the Mrs.
Graftys, of Craven Street, Finsbury, when they have the chance. See
Haydon's Autobiography, Vol I. p.361.
 "I never saw the poet Keats but once, but he then read some
lines from (I think) the 'Bristowe Tragedy' with an enthusiasm of
admiration such as could be felt only by a poet, and which true
poetry only could have excited."--J. H. C., in Notes & Queries, 4th
s. x. 157.
 Haydon (Autobiography, Vol. I. p.379) says that he "strongly
suspects" Terry to have written the articles in Blackwood.
 The lodging of Keats was on the Piazza di Spagna, in the first
house on the right hand in going up the Scalinata. Mr. Severn's
Studio is said to have been in the Cancello over the garden gate of
the Villa Negroni, pleasantly familiar to all Americans as the Roman
home of their countryman Crawford.
 Written in 1856. O irony of Time! Ten years after the poet's
death the woman he had so loved wrote to his friend Mr. Dilke, that
"the kindest act would be to let him rest forever in the obscurity to
which circumstances had condemned him"! (Papers of a Critic, I. 11.)
O Time the atoner! In 1874 I found the grave planted with shrubs and
flowers, the pious homage of the daughter of our most eminent
 Leigh Hunt's Autobiography, II. 43.