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that, while it is dwindling, I may be plotting, and fitting myself for verses fit to live.
“This may be speaking too presumptuously, and may deserve a punishment. But no feeling man will be forward to inflict it; he will leave me alone with the conviction that there is not a fiercer hell than the failure in a great object. This is not written with the least atom of purpose to forestall criticisms of course, but from the desire I have to conciliate men who are competent to look, and who do look, with a zealous eye to the honour of English literature.
“ The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy. But there is a space of life between in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted. Thence proceeds mawkishness, and all the thousand bitters which those men I speak of must necessarily taste in going over the following pages.
"I hope I have not in too late a day touched the beautiful mythology of Greece, and dulled its brightness; for I wish to try once more before I bid it farewell.”
No one can deny that this is a modest preface; it is in fact too modest, and concedes to the adversary the utmost which could possibly be at issue, viz., whether the poem was worth publishing or not. The only scintilla of self-assertion in it is the hope expressed—“some hope" --that the writer might eventually produce "verses fit to live;" and less than that no man who puts a poem before the public could be expected to postulate. Keats must therefore be expressly acquitted of having done anything
to excite animosity or retaliation on the part of his critics; the sole thing which could be attacked was the poem itself—too frankly pronounced indefensible—or else something in the author which did not appear within the covers of his volume. The preface is indeed manly as well as modest; there is not a servile or obsequious word in it; yet I cannot help thinking that Keats, when later on he found "Endymion” denounced as drivel, must at times have wished that he had been a little less deferential to Reynolds's objections, and had not so explicitly admitted that not one of the four books of the poem was qualified to "pass the press." An adverse reviewer was sure to take advantage of that admission, and did so.
It would be interesting to compare with the preface which Keats printed for “Endymion " the one which Shelley printed for “The Revolt of Islam.” Shelley, like Keats, was modest; he left his readers to settle any question as to his poetic claims (although “Alastor," previously published, might pretty well have vouched for these); but he resolutely explained that reviewers would find in him no subject for bullying. I can only make room for a few sentences :-
“The experience and the feelings to which I refer do not in themselves constitute men poets, but only prepare them to be the auditors of those who are. How far I shall be found to possess that more essential attribute of poetry, the power of awakening in others sensations like those which animate my own bosom, is that which, to speak sincerely, I know not, and which, with an acquiescent and contented spirit, I expect to be taught by the
effect which I shall produce upon those whom I now address. . . . It is the misfortune of this age that its writers, too thoughtless of immortality, are exquisitely sensible to temporary praise or blame. They write with the fear of reviews before their eyes. This system of criticism sprang up in that torpid interval when poetry was not. Poetry, and the art which professes to regulate and limit its powers, cannot subsist together. ... I have sought, therefore, to write (as I believe that Homer, Shakespeare, and Milton wrote) in utter disregard of anonymous censure."
The publisher of “Endymion” (Mr. Taylor is probably meant) was nervous as to the reception which potent critics would accord to the volume. He went to William Gifford, the editor of the Quarterly Review, to bespeak indulgence, but found a Cerberus who rejected every sop. In the number of the Quarterly for April 1818-not actually published, it would seem, until Septemberappeared a critique branded into ignominious permanence by the name and fame of Keats. Gifford himself is regarded as its author. As an account of Keats's career would for various reasons be incomplete in the absence of this critique, I reproduce it here. It has the merit of brevity, and lends itself hardly at all to curtailment, but I miss one or two details, relating chiefly to Leigh Hunt
“Reviewers have been sometimes accused of not reading the works which they affected to criticize. On the present occasion we shall anticipate the author's complaint, and honestly confess that we have not read
his work. Not that we have been wanting in our duty; far from it; indeed, we have made efforts, almost as superhuman as the story itself appears to be, to get through it: but, with the fullest stretch of our perseverance, we are forced to confess that we have not been able to struggle beyond the first of the four books of which this Poetic Romance consists. We should extremely lament this want of energy, or whatever it may be, on our parts, were it not for one consolation-namely, that we are no better acquainted with the meaning of the book through which we have so painfully toiled than we are with that of the three which we have not looked into.
“ It is not that Mr. Keats (if that be his real name, for we almost doubt that any man in his senses would put his real name to such a rhapsody)—it is not, we say, that the author has not powers of language, rays of fancy, and gleams of genius. He has all these ; but he is unhappily a disciple of the new school of what has been somewhere called Cockney Poetry,' which may be defined to consist of the most incongruous ideas in the most uncouth language.
“Of this school Mr. Leigh Hunt, as we observed in a former number, aspires to be the hierophant. . . . This author is a copyist of Mr. Hunt, but he is more unintelligible, almost as rugged, twice as diffuse, and ten times more tiresome and absurd, than his prototype, who, though he impudently presumed to seat himself in the chair of criticism, and to measure his own poetry by his own standard, yet generally had a meaning. But Mr. Keats had advanced no dogmas which he was bound to support by examples. His nonsense, therefore, is quite
gratuitous; he writes it for its own sake, and, being bitten by Mr. Leigh Hunt's insane criticism, more than rivals the insanity of his poetry.
“Mr. Keats's preface hints that his poem was produced under peculiar circumstances. Knowing within myself,' he says, “the manner [&c., down to 'a deed accomplished']. We humbly beg his pardon, but this does not appear to us to be 'quite so clear;' we really do not know what he means. But the next passage is more intelligible. “The two first books, and indeed the two last, I feel sensible, are not of such completion as to warrant their passing the press.' Thus the two first books' are, even in his own judgment, unfit to appear, and 'the two last'are, it seems, in the same condition; and, as two and two make four, and as that is the whole number of books, we have a clear, and we believe a very just, estimate of the entire work.
“ Mr. Keats, however, deprecates criticism on this 'immature and feverish work ' in terms which are themselves sufficiently feverish; and we confess that we should have abstained from inflicting upon him any of the tortures of the 'fierce hell' of criticism' which terrify his imagination if he had not begged to be spared in order that he might write more; if we had not observed in him
• The reader of Keats's preface will note that this is a misrepresentation. Keats did not speak of any fierce hell of criticism, nor did he ask to remain uncriticized in order that he might write
What he said was that a feeling critic would not fall foul of him for hoping to write good poetry in the long run, and would be aware that Keats's own sense of failure in “ 'Endymion” was as fierce a hell as he could be chastised by.