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R. M. Milnes' Life of Keats.

69

ART. III.-Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats.

Edited by RICHARD MONCKTON MILNES. London : 1848.

In order to secure ourselves against being prejudged of injustice to the subject of this notice, we may at once state our opinion, that as surprising powers of merely sensual perception and expression are to be detected in the poems of Keats as in any others within the range of English literature. Herrick surpassed Keats, in his own way, by fits, and in a few single passages; and Chaucer has pieces of brilliant and unmixed wordpainting which have no equals in our language; but the power that these great poets attained, or at least exerted, only in moments, was the common manner and

easy

habit of the wonderful man, who may claim the honour of having assisted more than any other writer, except Mr. Wordsworth, in the origination of the remarkable school of poetry which is yet in its vigorous youth, and exhibits indications of capabilities of unlimited expansion. We also anticipate objections that might be urged, with apparent reason, against the following remarks, by stating our conviction, that the short-comings of which we shall complain, could not have existed in the mature productions of Keats, had he lived to produce them. Indeed, as we shall presently take occasion to show, his mind, which was endowed with a power of growth almost unprecedentedly rapid, was on the eve of passing beyond the terrestrial sphere in which he had as yet moved, when death cut short his marvellous, and only just commenced, career.

To Keats, more deeply perhaps than to any poet born in Christian times,

“ Life, like a dome of many coloured glass,

Stained the white radiance of eternity.”

His mind, like Goethe's, was " lighted from below.” Not a ray of the wisdom that is from above had, as yet, illumined it.

The character of the poet, in as far as it differs from that of other men, is indeed a subject of too much importance to allow of our sacrificing this admirable occasion for extending our knowledge concerning it, to our tenderness, or to that of our readers, for the young writer of whom Mr. Monckton Milnes is at once the faithful biographer, and the eloquent apologist. Mr. Milnes will pardon us if our deductions from the data with which he has supplied us, do not wholly coincide with his own inferences. We confess that we are unable to detect, even in Keats' latest let

ters and compositions, anything more than a strong promise of, and aspiration towards many qualities of character and genius, which Mr. Milnes regards as already numbered among the constituents of the young poet's life and power.

Extraordinary poetical genius, notwithstanding its resemblance to exuberant health, has not unfrequently been found to be connected with deeply seated disease. In most cases, the poetical power seems to have been the result of an abnormal habit of sensation.

66 We are men of ruined blood

Thereby comes it we are wise.”

For that the consumption and insanity which have often terminated the careers of men of genius, have been not so much the consequences as the causes of their superiority, is sufficiently attested by the fact, that those diseases have been, in such cases, as in common ones, most frequently hereditary.

It is a curious medical fact, which we have heard stated by firstrate authorities, that instances are not extraordinary of families, in which, while one member has been afflicted with consumption, a second with scrofula, and a third with insanity, the fourth has been endowed with brilliant genius.

In making these remarks, we no more impugn the transcendant value which the productions of genius usually bear, than the naturalist questions the value of a precious gum, in describing it as the result of vegetable malformations or disease. Nor would we be supposed to imply an ordinary absence in the man of genius of a great general superiority of moral character, when compared with the common rank of men. Genius, however fantastical

may

be the form which it assumes, is, in essence, an extraordinary honesty; an honesty which too often refuses to exert itself beyond the sphere of the senses and the intellect, and which, then, in its highest energy, produces a Raphael or a Coleridge ; but which, sometimes, while it purifies the senses, and perfects their expression, prevents also every incontinence of character, and carries manhood to its height in a Milton or a Michael Angelo ? Minds belonging to this latter category, the aloe-blossoms of humanity, appear less than others to have been indebted to disease for their pre-eminence. In almost every page

of the work before us, the close connection between the genius of Keats and his constitutional malady pronounces itself. No comment of ours could deepen the emphasis of the following passages, taken nearly at random from the mass of similar passages, of which the letters of the young poet in great part consist.

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“ I have this morning such a lethargy that I cannot write. The reason of my delaying is oftentimes from this feeling: I wait for a proper temper. I am now so depressed that I have not an idea to put to paper; my hand feels like lead, and yet it is an unpleasant numbness; it does not take away the pain of existence ; I don't know what to write. Monday.—You see how I have delayed—and even now I have but a confused idea of what I should be about. My intellect must be in a degenerating state; it must be, for when I should be writing about,-God knows what, I am troubling you with moods of my own mind-or rather body—for mind there is none. I am in that temper, that if I were under water, I would scarcely kick to come to the top. I know very well this is all nonsense. In a short time, I hope I shall be in a temper to feel sensibly your mention of my book. In vain have I waited till Monday, to have any interest in that or in any thing else. I feel no spur at my brother's going to America ; and am almost stony-hearted about his wedding."

“I am this morning in a sort of temper, indolent, and supremely careless ; I long after a stanza or two of Thomson's Castle of Indolence;' my passions are all asleep from my having slumbered till nearly eleven, and weakened the animal fibre all over me to a delightful sensation,-about three degrees on this side of faintness. If I had teeth of pearl, and the breath of lilies, I should call it languor ; but as I am, I must call it laziness. The fibres of the brain are relaxed in common with the rest of the body, and to such a happy degree, that pleasure has no show of enticement, and pain no unbearable frown. Neither poetry, nor ambition, nor love, have any show of alertness of countenance as they pass by ; they seem rather three figures on a Greek vase; a man and two women, whom no one but myself would distinguish in their disguisement. This is the only happiness; and is a rare instance of advantage in the body overpowering the mind."

“ I feel I must again begin with my poetry, for if I am not in action I am in pain.

I live under an everlasting restraint, never relieved unless I am composing, so I will write away.” “ The relief,—the feverish relief of poetry.

* * This morning poetry has conquered. I have relapsed into those abstractions which are my only life. I feel escaped from a new and threatening sorrow; and I am thankful for it. There is an awful warmth about my heart, like a load of immortality.” “ I carry all matters to an extreme-so when I have

any

little cause of vexation, it grows in five minutes into a theme for Sophocles. Then, and in that temper, if I write to any friend, I have so little selfpossession, that I give him time for grieving at the very time, perhaps, when I am laughing at a pun.”

“ We are still here enveloped in clouds. I lay awake last night listening to the rain, with a sense of being drowned and rotted like a grain of wheat.”

*

*

All the above passages were written long before the appearance of the acknowledged symptoms of consumption, and to us they seem to have shewn forth the end as infallibly as did the nerveless clasp of the hand, from which Coleridge predicted the early death of Keats, at an equal distance of time from its oc

currence.

To theorize justly upon character is the more difficult for the extreme ease with which mere plausibilities may be put forth on the subject; and the common difficulty is greatly increased, in the present case, by the necessity of constantly distinguishing between signs of character and the products of a very peculiar physical temperament, always subject to the influence of a malady, which, in its earliest stages, is frequently so subtle as to defy detection, and to cause its identification for a long period, with the constitution that it is destroying. The case becomes still further complicated, when we take into account the periods of prostration and lethargy, which are the re-action that follows inevitably from the prodigious activity of poetical production. To give anything like a systematic view of the mind and character of Keats, is therefore more than we dare to undertake; all we can attempt is, to select the salient points of the work before us, and to present them to our readers in such juxtaposition contrast as may seem to be best adapted to the elimination of their significance.

A co-temporary journal of respectable authority, pronounces the writings of Keats to be distinguished by two of the Miltonic characteristics of poetry, sensuousness and passion, and to be wanting in the third, simplicity. We do not think that Keats' verses are characterized remarkably by either of these qualities, in the sense in which Milton understood them, when he proclaimed his famous rule. That Keats' poems, if we except certain parts of the fragment of Hyperion, want simplicity, is too obvious to require proof or illustration. His verses constitute a region of eye-wearying splendour, from which all who can duly appreciate them, must feel glad to escape, after the astonishment and rapture caused by a short sojourn among them. As for sensuousness, it is an excellence which cannot thrive in the presence of sensuality; and it is by sensuality, in the broader, and not in the vulgar and degrading sense of the term, that Keats' poems are most obviously characterized. This charge, for such we admit that it is, must be substantiated; and to this object we devote our second batch of extracts. They will be, not from Keats' poems, but from his letters ; since the shortest way of establishing the general prevalence of a quality in a man's writings is to shew it to have been constantly present in his personal character.

The Poetical Character.

73

The first quotation we make is a very important one. It contains Keats explicit testimony against himself, with regard to the quality in point. Notwithstanding the young poet's unusual honesty of character, he would probably not have made the following confession and complaint, had he not secretly, though certainly very erroneously, believed them to be a revelation of traits of which he was possessed in common with Shakspeare.

As to the poetical character itself, (I mean that sort of which, if I am anything, I am a member, that sort distinguished from the Wordsworthian, or egotistical sublime, which is a thing per se, and stands alone,) it is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing. It has no character; it enjoys light and shade ; it lives in a gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated. It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogene. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the cameleon poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things, any more than from its taste of the bright one, because they both end in speculation. A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no identity; he is continually in for and filling some other body. The sun, the moon, the sea, and men and women, who are creatures of an impulse, are poetical, and have about them an unchangeable attribute; the poet has none, no identity; he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God's creatures. If, then, he has no self; and if I am a poet, where is the wonder that I should say, I would write no more? Might I not at that very instant have been cogitating on the characters of Saturn and Ops ? It is a wretched thing to confess; but it is a very fact, that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature. How can it when I have no nature ? When I am in a room with people, if I am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then, not myself goes home to myself; but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me, so that I am in a very little time annihilated ; not only among men, but in a nursery of children it would be the same. I know not whether I make myself wholly understood; I hope enough to make you see that no dependence is to be placed on what I said that day.”

Now this want of identity, as Keats calls it, has been more or less the characteristic of artists of all kinds, who have been endowed only with the first, or sensual degree of genius. In Keats, the preponderance of this nature was, however, overwhelming, especially in the earlier portion of his career. A great revolution must have occured in his views, if not in his character, had he lived a year or two longer than he did; but, as it happened, it was impossible that his poetry, as a general thing, should be other than sensual, or literal, and for the most part, opposed in quality to the sensuous or interpretative. We hold it to be out of the question, that Keats, with such a physical organization as

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