Зображення сторінки

those of the writer. The circumstance of Keats having been brought up a surgeon, is the staple of the jokes of the piece-he is told, “it is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary, than a starved poet,” and is bidden “ back to his gallipots ;', just as an orthodox Jew might have bidden Simon Peter back to his nets. At any rate, this was hardly the way to teach refinement to low-born poets, and to show the superior breeding of aristocratic reviewers.

On looking back at the reception of Keats by his literary contemporaries, the somewhat tardy appearance of the justification of his genius by one who then held a wide sway over the taste of his time, appears as a most unfortunate incident. If the frank acknowledgment of the respect with which Keats had inspired Mr. Jeffrey, had been made in 1818 instead of 1820, the tide of public opinion would probably have been at once turned in his favor, and the imbecile abuse of his political, rather than literary, antagonists, been completely exposed. In the very first sentence of his essay, indeed, Mr. Jeffrey lamented that these works had not come under his notice earlier, and, in the late edition of his collected articles, he expresses “ the additional regret that he did not even then go more largely into the exposition of the merits of one, whom he ever regards as a poet of great power and promise, lost to us by a premature death.” This notice in the “ Edinburgh Review” referred principally to “ Endymion,” of which, after a fair statement of objections to certain exaggerations and imperfections, it summed up the character and value as follows; and I think it nearly impossible to express, in fewer or better words, the impression usually left by this poem on those minds which, from their constitution, can claim to possess an opinion on the question.

"It [Endymion] is, in truth, at least as full of genius as of absurdity, and he who does not find a great deal in it to admire and to give delight, cannot, in his heart, see much beauty in the two exquisite dramas to which we have already alluded [the

Faithful Shepherdess of Fletcher, and the “Sad Shepherd' of Ben Jonson,] or find any great pleasure in some of the finest creations of Milton and Shakspeare. There are very many such persons we readily believe, even among the reading and judicious part of the community—correct scholars we have no doubt many of them, and, it may be, very classical composers in prose and in verse, but utterly ignorant of the true genius of English poetry, and incapable of estimating its appropriate and most exquisite beauties. With that spirit we have no hesitation in saying Mr. Keats is deeply imbued, and of those beauties he has presented us with many sterling examples. We are very much inclined, indeed, to add, that we do not know any book which we would sooner employ, as a test to ascertain whether any one had in him a native relish for poetry, and a genuine sensibility to its intrinsic charm.


This peculiar treatment of the Greek mythology, which was merely repulsive to the unscholarly views of pedants, and quite unintelligible to those who, knowing no more than Keats himself did of the Grecian language, were utterly incapable of comprehending the faculty by which the Poet could communicate with Grecian nature, is estimated by Mr. Jeffrey, with remarkable justice and force; but, perhaps, without a full conception of the process by which the will of Keats came into such entire harmony with the sensuous workings of the old Grecian spirit, that not only did his imagination delight in the same objects, but that it was, in truth, what theirs under certain circumstances might have been. He writes,

“There is something very curious in the way in which Mr. Keats, and Mr. Barry Cornwall also, have dealt with the pagan mythology, of which they have made so much use in their poetry, Instead of presenting its imaginary persons under the trite and vulgar traits that belong to them in the ordinary systems, little more is borrowed from these than the general conception of their conditions and relations, and an original character and distinct individuality is bestowed upon them, which has all the merit of invention and all the grace and attraction of the fictions on which it is engrafted. The ancients, though they probably did not stand in any great awe of their deities, have yet abstained, very much, from any minute or dramatic representation of their feelings and affections. In Hesiod and Homer they are coarsely delineated, by some of their actions and adventures, and introduced to us merely as the agents in those particular transactions, while in the Hymns, from those ascribed to Orpheus and Homer down to those


of Callimachus, we have little but pompous epithets and invocations, with a flattering commemoration of their most famous exploits, and are never allowed to enter into their bosoms, or follow out the train of their feelings with the presumption of our human sympathy. Except the love-song of the Cyclops to his sea-nymph in Theocritus—the Lamentation of Venus for Adonis in Moschus, --and the more recent Legend of Apuleius, we scarcely recollect a passage in all the writings of antiquity in which the passions of an Immortal are fairly disclosed to the scrutiny and observation of men. The author before us, however, and some of his contemporaries, have dealt differently with the subject, and sheltering the violence of the fiction under the ancient traditionary fable, have created and imagined an entire new set of characters, and brought closely and minutely before us the loves and sorrows, and perplexities of beings, with whose names and supernatural attributes we had long been familiar, without any sense or feeling of their personal character.”

It appears from the “Life of Lord Byron” that he was excited by this article into a rage of jealous injustice. The recognition, by so high an authority, of Keats as a Poet, already great and becoming greater, was more than his patience could endure: for though he had been very well content to receive the hearty and honest admiration of Mr. Leigh Hunt and his friends, and to hold out a pretended liberal sympathy with their views and objects, yet when they came to see one another closer, as they did in the latter years of his life, the mutual repugnance could no longer be concealed, and flamed up almost into hatred. The noble poet wrote to the editor of the rival review, to send him“no more Keats, I entreat: flay him alive--if some of you don't, I must skin him myself. There is no bearing the driveling idiotism of the manikin.” Again he writes, “Of the praises of that little * * * Keats--I shall observe, as Johnson did when Sheridan the actor got a pension- What! has he got a pension ? --Then it is time I should give up mine!' Nobody could be prouder of the praise of the Edinburgh' than I was, or more alive to their censures, as I showed in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.' At present all the men they have ever praised are degraded by that insane article. Why do n't they review and praise “Solomon's Guide to Health ?? it is better sense, and as much poetry as Johnny Keats.”


After this unmeasured language, one is surprised to find Lord Byron not only one of the sharpest reprovers of the critics upon Keats, but emphatic in the acknowledgment of his genius. In a long note (Nov. 1821), he attributes his indignation to Keats's depreciation of Pope, which, he says, “ hardly permitted me to do justice to his own genius which, malgré all the fantastic fopperies of his style, was undoubtedly of great promise. His fragment of · Hyperionseems actually inspired by the Titians, and is as sublime as Æschylus. He is a loss to our literature, and the more so, as he himself, before his death, is said to have been persuaded that he had not taken the right line, and was reforming bis style upon the more classical models of the language.” To Mr. Murray himself, a short time before, Byron had written, "You know very well that I did not approve of Keats's poetry, or principles of poetry, or of his abuse of Pope; but, as he is dead, omit all that is said about him, in any MSS. of mine or publication. His · Hyperion' is a fine monument, and will keep his name.” This injunction, however, has been so little attended to by those who should have respected it, that the later editions of Lord Byron's works contain all the ribald abuse I have quoted, although the exclusion would, in literal terms, even extend to the well-known flippant and false, but not ill-natured, stanza of the 11th canto of " Don Juan.”


kind of attack which his own superior vigor and stouter fibre had enabled him triumphantly to resist. In a letter to Murray (1821) Byron writes, “I knew, by experience, that a savage review is hemlock to a sucking author : and the one on me (which produced the English Bards,' &c.) knocked me down-but I got up again. Instead of breaking a blood vessel ) drank three bottles of claret, and began an answer, finding that there was nothing in the article for which I could, lawfully, knock Jeffrey on the head, in an honorable way. However, I would not be the person who wrote that homicidal article, for all the honor and glory in the world ; though I by no means approve of that school of scribbling which it treats upon." Keats, as has been shown, was very far from requiring three bottles of claret to give him the inclination to fight the author of the slander, if he could have found him, -but the use he made of the attack was, to purify his style, correct his tendency to exaggeration, enlarge his poetical studies, and produce, among other improved efforts, that very “Hyperion” which called forth from Byron a eulogy as violent and unqualified as the former onslaught.

“Review people," again wrote Lord Byron, “ have no more right to kill than any other footpads. However, he who would die of an article in a review would have died of something else equally trivial. The same nearly happened to Kirke White, who died afterwards of a consumption.” Now the cases of Keats and Kirke White are just so far parallel, that Keats did die shortly after the criticisms upon him, and also of consumption : his friends also, while he still lived, spent a great deal of useless care upon these critics, and, out of an honest anger, gave encouragement to the notion that their brutality had a most injurious effect on the spirit and health of the Poet; but a conscientious inquiry entirely dispels such a supposition. In all this correspondence it must be seen how little importance Keats attaches to such opinions, how rarely he alludes to them at all, and how easily, when he does so ; how lowly was his own estimate of the very works they professed to judge, in comparison with what he felt himself capable of producing, and how completely he, in his world of art, rested above such paltry assailants. After his early death, the accusation was revived by the affectionate indignation of Mr. Brown; and Shel

« НазадПродовжити »