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To the Poet, if to any man, it may justly be conceded to be estimated by what he has written rather than by what he has done, and to be judged by the productions of his genius rather than by the circumstances of his outward life. For although the choice and treatment of a subject may enable us to contemplate the mind of the Historian, the Novelist, or the Philosopher, yet our observation will be more or less limited and obscured by the sequence of events, the forms of manners, or the exigencies of theory, and the personality of the writer must be frequently lost ; while the Poet, if his utterances be deep and true, can hardly hide himself even beneath the epic or dramatic veil, and often makes of the rough public ear a confessional into which to pour the richest treasures and holiest secrets of his soul. His Life is in his writings, and his Poems are his works indeed.
The biography therefore of a poet can be little better than a comment on his Poems, even when itself of long duration, and checkered with strange and various adventures: but these pages concern one whose whole story may be summed up in the composition of three small volumes of verse, some earnest friendships, one passion, and a premature death. As men die, so they walk among posterity; and our impression of Keats can only be that of a noble nature perseveringly testing its own powers, of a manly heart bravely surmounting its first hard experience, and of an
imagination ready to inundate the world, yet learning to flow within regulated channels, and abating its violence without lessening its strength.
It is thus no more than the beginning of a Life which can here be written, and nothing but a conviction of the singularity and greatness of the fragment would justify any one in attempting to draw general attention to its shape and substance. The interest indeed of the Poems of Keats has already had much of a personal character: and his early end, like that of Chatterton, (of whom he ever speaks with a sort of prescient sympathy,) has, in some degree, stood him in stead of a fulfilled poetical existence. Ever improving in his art, he gave no reason to believe that his marvelous faculty had any thing in common with that lyrical facility which many men have manifested in boyhood or in youth, but which has grown torpid or disappeared altogether with the advance of mature life; in him no one doubts that a true genius was suddenly arrested, and they who will not allow him to have won his place in the first ranks of English poets will not deny the promise of his candidature. When a man has had a fair field of existence before him and free scope for the exhibition of his energies, it becomes a superfluous and generally an unprofitable task to collect together the unimportant incidents of his career and hoard up the scattered remnants of his mind, most of which he would probably have himself wished to be forgotten. But in the instance of Keats, it is a natural feeling in those who knew and loved, and not an extravagant one in those who merely admire him, to desire, as far as may be, to repair the injustice of destiny, and to glean whatever relics they may find of a harvest of which so few full sheaves were permitted to be garnered.
The interest which attaches to the family of every remarka. ble individual has failed to discover in that of Keats any thing more than that the influences with which his childhood was sur. rounded were virtuous and honorable. His father, who was employed in the establishment of Mr. Jennings, the proprietor of large livery-stables on the Pavement in Moorfields, nearly oppo. site the entrance into Finsbury Circus, became his master's son. in-law, and is still remembered as a man of excellent natural sense, lively and energetic countenance, and entire freedom from any vulgarity or assumption on account of his prosperous alliance. He was killed by a fall from his horse in 1804, at the early age of thirty-six. The mother, a lively, intelligent woman, was supposed to have prematurely hastened the birth of John by her passionate love of amusement, though his constitution gave no signs of the peculiar debility of a seventh months child. He was born on the 29th of October, 1795.* He had two brothers, George, older than himself, Thomas, younger, and a sister much younger; John resembled his father in feature, stature, and manners, while the two brothers were more like their mother, who was tall, had a large oval face, and a somewhat saturnine demeanor. She succeeded, however, in inspiring her children with the profoundest affection, and especially John, who, when, on an occasion of illness, the doctor ordered her not to be disturbed for some time, kept sentinel at her door for above three hours with an old sword he had picked up, and allowed no one to enter the room. At this time he was between four and five years old, and later he was sent, with his brothers, to Mr. Clarke's school at Enfield, which was then in high repute. Harrow had been at first proposed, but was found to be too expensive.
A maternal uncle of the young Keats's had been an officer in Duncan's ship in the action off Camperdown, and had distinguished himself there both by his signal bravery and by his peculiarly lofty stature, which made him a mark for the enemy's shot; the Dutch admiral said as much to him after the battle. This sailor. uncle was the ideal of the boys, and filled their imagination when they went to school with the notion of keeping up the family's reputation for courage. This was manifested in the elder brother by a passive manliness, but in John and Tom by the fiercest pug. nacity. John was always fighting; he chose his favorites among his school fellows from those that fought the most readily
* This point, which has been disputed, (Mr. Leigh Hunt making him a year younger,) is decided by the proceedings in Chancery, on the administration of his effects, where he is said to have come of age in October, 1816. Rawlings v. Jennings, June 30, 1825.
and pertinaciously, nor were the brothers loth to exercise their mettle even on one another. This disposition, however, in all of them, seems to have been combined with much tenderness, and, in John, with a passionate sensibility, which exhibited itself in the strongest contrasts. Convulsions of laughter and of tears were equally frequent with him, and he would pass from one to the other almost without an interval. He gave vent to his impulses with no regard for consequences; he violently attacked an usher who had boxed his brother's ears, and on the occasion of his mother's death, which occurred suddenly, in 1810, (though she had lingered for some years in a consumption,) he hid himself in a nook under the master's desk for several days, in a long agony of grief, and would take no consolation from master or from friend. The sense of humor, which almost universally accompanies a deep sensibility, and is perhaps but the reverse of the medal, abounded in him ; from the first, he took infinite delight in any grotesque originality or novel prank of his companions, and, after the exhibition of physical courage, appeared to prize these above all other qualifications. His indifference to be thought well of as “a good boy,” was as remarkable as his facility in getting through the daily tasks of the school, which never seemed to occupy his attention, but in which he was never behind the others. His skill in all manly exercises and the perfect generosity of his disposition, made him extremely popular: "he combined,” writes one of his schoolfellows, “ a terrier-like resoluteness of character, with the most noble placability,” and another mentions that his extraordi. nary energy, animation, and ability, impressed them all with a conviction of his future greatness, “but rather in a military or some such active sphere of life, than in the peaceful arena of literature.”* This impression was no doubt unconsciously aided by a rare vivacity of countenance and very beautiful features. His eyes, then, as ever, were large and sensitive, flashing with strong emotions or suffused with tender sympathies, and more distinctly reflected the varying impulses of his nature than when under the self-control of maturer years : his hair hung
* Mr. E. Holmes, author of the “ Life of Mozart,” &c.