Boston Evening Transcript - A Biographical Study of Keats|
(Review of Hancock's "John Keats: A Literary Biography")
by E.F.E. (October 21st, 1908).
It is the personality of the man rather than the work of the poet that Mr. Hancock reveals and expounds to us in his biography of John Keats. Here and there we are given comment upon the poems, and an explanation of them by means of his letters, but as a rule it is the boy and the man himself that we see in Mr. Hancock's pages during his brief period of twenty-five years. Our introduction to him is by means of an opening chapter somewhat inaptly entitled, "Before Waterloo and After," and in its course we are informed that Keats belongs to the Revolutionary period, that his youth was exactly contemporaneous with the public career of Napoleon, but that while he must have read the Liberal papers in his boyhood, while he had a vague instinct for liberty, while he venerated Alfred, and Tell, and Wallace as heroes of freedom, the spirit of the times touched him but casually, and that there is no sign in his soul of the turmoil of political storm and stress.
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This may be very true, but Mr. Hancock is decidedly unmannerly and offensive in his elaboration of this and others of his contentions. He calls Edmund Gosse "fatuous" because that critic has asserted that "no poet save Shakespeare is more English than Keats," but immediately thereafter he acknowledges that Keats "drank inspiration from English poets," and that he "drew a charm from some native landscapes." But in spite of all this he is sure that Keats's poetry lacks local color, that his creative faculty bears no peculiar characteristic of place or time, and that "his voice was an oracle, issuing from some impenetrable sanctuary. Throughout Mr. Hancock writes in an aggressive style that is certainly forcible and readable, but at every step of his commentary upon Keats's career he is more contentious than critical. He glances far and wide over the world, and if there be an event or a personality that can by any possibility be stretched to touch the poet, or that can serve as an illustration, he does not hesitate to make use of it. He is frequently more explicit than elegant, more anxious to make a point than to state a plain fact. "Puberty concentrated the chaos of energies into intellectual ambition," he remarks of Keats's youth. "The fighting animal became a scholar. The intensity of his nature developed into a burning fever for knowledge; a lust for conquest in the kingdom of the mind. He rose early; he scanted his athletic exercises; he begrudged the time for meals. He took all the prizes in literature and voluntarily translated the whole of the Æneid into prose. . . The gods and goddesses actually lived and moved and had a being in his imagination. Macbeth overwhelmed it with the terrifying power of hallucinations. 'Macbeth,' said the lad, 'should not be read at night.'"
Thereafter we are given an outline of Keats's life, of his apprenticeship to a country doctor, of his love affairs, but the substance of the book is made up of chapters upon his "Characteristics," the Philosophy of Soul-Making," "the Attacks of the Reviews," "the Revelation of Character," "his "Poetical Nature," and a "Philosophy of his Art." The end of Keats's career in medicine came, if we are to believe Mr. Hancock, when he opened a man's temporal artery. "The operation was done with skill, but with an absent mind," is the biographer's comment in a somewhat unnecessary vein of humor. From Guy's Hospital to the rural seclusion of Hampstead Heath was Keats's next move, and there he took upon himself the influence of Leigh Hunt, who, we are told "was capable of noble friendships" in spite of his "deficiency of real genius." And why, may we ask Mr. Hancock, is genius considered indispensable to friendship? Rhapsodically he pictures the growth of Keats's poetical mind, telling us that "it was the moon which first brought him the light that never was on sea or land." It was "not the Bible," he continues, "nor the perplexities of science, nor political liberalism, nor nature, nor, even love that gave stimulus to his creative life. It was the cult of the moon." Herein Mr. Hancock finds what he calls "the origin of Keats," its motive and suggestion of course being derived from "Endymion."
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