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THE LIFE OF JOHN KEATS. 243
THE LIFE OF JOHN KEATS.
It is the old story! We are again summoned to admire where once we despised. The citizens of Bristol erect a monument to the memory of Chatterton, who, to save himself from death through hunger, took poison, and was thrown, pauper-like, into the burying ground of Shoe-lane workhouse, London. Keats, spurned and persecuted in his lifetime, is welcomed today, and from his distant grave begins to influence thought in the land of his birth, which he quitted in proud, but intolerable despair. The instances are two out of many. The tale did not begin with "the marvellous boy, the sleepless soul, that perished in his pride;" it has not ended with Adonais, whose soul—
"Like a star Beacons from the abode where the eternal are."
Our present task is a simple one. We cannot recall genius from the tomb to witness the final triumph of its long suffering, and to console itself for its wrongs in the consciousness of our remorse. We may in the public market-place do justice to the citizen whom we ostracised in ignorance and hooted forth in folly.
John Keats was born under an unlucky star. He was beset with evil influences from the moment that he felt his own great strength. Had he been suffered to walk alone, unaided but by the might of his spirit, he would never have been struck down on the way by the fury of men who were waging war to the death against his associates. Keats at starting was the victim of a quarrel between parties who, like most antagonists, were wrong and were right in their respective grounds of opposition. The chosen or forced companions of Keats, when, as a mere boy, he resolved to dedicate his life to the service of poetry, were unfortunately members of a school. Unfortunately, again, the sharpest and cleverest critics of the day were members of another. The author Comus himself would not have escaped Scot-free from the encounter. Keats might have sung as an angel, and his voice would have made no impression upon ears that listened to nothing but the promptings of an internal and most vindictive rage.
There is much to be said for and against the belligerents. It is not to be denied that if the critics of the early part of the century were vicious beyond all bounds, the objects of their attack were but too often ridiculous past all hope. The very worthy and, in their way, highly respectable gentlemen who, at the time of Keats' appearance upon the stage, had formed themselves into a snug coterie, and under the unpoetical title of " Cockneys," forced public attention to a most ridiculous expression of many rare and noble sentiments, invited satire and laid themselves fairly open to the assaults of the evil-disposed. Grown-up men are not suffered, in the heart of our practical and manly nation, to play the parts of children. Even the madness of our poets must have its method, or be dismissed to the asylum. What
HIS FIRST PATRONS. 245
could be done with a small family of lyrical aspirants who employed the muse in writing sonnets to one another, and the greengrocer in preparing crowns of ivy for mutual coronations? How was it possible to avoid a laugh at the amiable simplicity of inveterate Londoners, who converted Primrose Hill into Parnassus, and deliberately walked to the Vale of Health at Hampstead— not for health, but inspiration 1 Two of the earliest productions of poor Keats indicate, in their very titles, how thoroughly he had identified himself at starting with the puerilities of his friends. One is suggested by sleeping in Mr. Leigh Hunt's pretty cottage on the Hampstead Road; the other owes its origin to a neighbouring paddock. Hunt, Hazlitt, Shelley, and Godwin, were the backers of the boy when he stripped, with a lion's heart, to fight his great battle for fame; and never had mortal deeper reason to pray heaven to save him from his friends. The greatness of the names are beyond all doubt; so is the fact that in the year 1817, or thereabouts, they were sounds to alarm the rising generation, and the veriest bugbears of society. A letter of recommendation from any one of the four was a certain passport, not to neglect—that might have been borne—but to persecution and insult. The failings— the vices, if you will—of one and all were visited on the head of their unfortunate protegt, whoever he might be. Keats, chivalrous to a fault, cannot be said to have been caught when his sympathies urged him to the side of individuals whom, in his soul, he believed to be cruelly oppressed.
The critics were far from blameless. They revelled wantonly in their strength, and took unfair advantage of the time. The peace of Europe, the triumph of order, the frightful remembrance of the French Revolution, the downfall of the Corsican despot, gave extraordinary power to the pen advocating Conservatism, and opposing the designs of Democracy. The friends of Keats were politicians as well as poets; one, indeed, the chief and most affectionate, was suffering in prison the penalty of excessive liberality which had been betrayed into a libel upon the then Prince Regent. There can be no doubt whatever that the literary critic, assuming the sword of the political partisan, struck at the fantastic poet through the heart of the uncompromising Radical, and mocked the writing chiefly because he hated the man. The temptation to crush was immense, but the mode of attack was, after all, cowardly. Society, but too willing to stigmatise the conscientious Reformer, needed not the instigations of falsehood to bring its whole scorn to bear upon a few well-meaning and highhearted, although, in many respects, misguided men. Crimes were imputed to harmless dreamers in the Hampstead fields, in the existence of which the accusers themselves never believed. Practices were hinted at too monstrous for belief—if anything can be too monstrous for prejudice to credit and enjoy. The responsibility and gravity of the literary judge utterly gave way before the necessity of silencing an enemy to Church and State. You opened the critic's pages for a touch of his quality, and found him belabouring, with a heavy cudgel, an unhappy devil lying already half crushed under his foot.
In such a state of things Keats rose—an undoubted poet. Do not question the fact with the evidence you
PUBLISHES "ENDYMION." 247
have around you. It is the spirit of Keats that at the present moment hovers over the best of our national poesy, and inspires the poetic genius—such as it is—of our unpoetic age. Had he lived, he would eventually have towered above his contemporaries; dying before he was twenty-six years of age, he took his place at once among the examples whom he so passionately loved, and the models he so successfully imitated, and so closely approached. JUndymion, full of faults, overflows with as many beauties, and both are stamped with greatness. The most unsparing reviewer of the time was not half so conscious of the many defects of this extraordinary composition as the author himself, who, at the beginning of his career, entered upon a system of self-tuition, the effects of which are strikingly apparent at its close, although the interval is spanned by a very few months.
"Knowing within myself," says Keats in his preface to Endymion, "the manner in which this poem has been produced, it is not without a feeling of regret that I make it public.
"What manner I mean will be quite clear to the reader, who must soon perceive great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt rather than a deed accomplished. The two first books, and indeed the two last, I feel sensible are not of such completion as to warrant their passing the press; nor should they, if I thought a year's castigation would do them any good. It will not; the foundations are too sandy. It is just that this youngster should die away; a sad thought for me, if I had not some hope that, while it was dwindling, I may be plotting and fitting myself for verses fitter to live.