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 in Keats's love for Fanny Brawne that Mr. Hancock finds one of the malign influences of his fate, and he works himself into a fine fit of indignation over the "bad taste" of those who invade the privacy of the dead and read love letters in cold type. These are Mr. Hancock's own words, and they show his devotion to the conventional phrase. He pats Mr. Colvin on the head for omitting the Brawne letters from his collection, he is appreciative of Buxton Forman for having them printed only for private circulation. He acknowledges that "certainly these letters add vividness to the tragic picture of the last days and reveal Keats's melancholy end as the operation of nature's immutable laws," but he asks us to confine our judgment of the poet to matters of public concern. "There are bounds of jurisdiction for courts of law," he says. "Why not for literary criticism? Let literary criticism beware of the temptations of Peeping Tom. Let it read such letters as these, if it must, with deference and common humanity." Yet he himself has obviously read the letters with some satisfaction, and he does not hesitate to describe the impression they made upon him. It is the artist, he observes, not the man who was in love with Fanny Brawne, and thereupon he oracularly psychologizes upon what he assumes to be Keats's mental attitude in this love affair. "The qualities of companionableness which made him so welcome among his friends were not brought into play by her. He actually had to shun her to preserve his poise. The fascination came from the illusion of the imagination which saw in a commonplace girl its own mind-made image of beauty. This is not love in our human sense. It is a psychic fever in the guise of a sublime, all-demanding passion. Those outcries of agony, those wild dithyramble avowals of absolute vassalage—what are they but the concentrated energies of his poetic life calling for a passion in response equal to his own? It could not be given. The deep was calling unto the shallows. The object of worship was an ordinary woman—tender, perverse, worldly. Her heart was content with the pleasures of the passing day. Her lover's demands had the hunger of all time and all space. He lived in the presence of the eternities. Marriage for them on earth—let us not contemplate that calamity."
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Mr. Hancock, it must be said, gives us no real biography of Keats. He merely writes a monograph upon the relations of the poet's life to his work and of his work to his life. A glimpse here and there of Keats through his letters, an abundance of references to the time and the people of the time, some jocular, some acrid, some contemptuous, some serious, but all revealing to us more of Hancock than of Keats. He believes in stripping the skeleton of its flesh and showing us the naked bones. "Great men," he says, "long after death are usually set in a rosy limelight and written about sentimentally. Keats deserves his aura of fame. But let us for the moment hold hero-worship in abeyance and see him in the common light of day—as one who ate mutton chops, walked down Cheapside, climbed into stagecoaches, chatted, bantered and took his diversions with his friends. Of all the English poets—the genus irritable—he was one of the pleasantest to live with." At any rate, whether he dispute with Mr. Hancock, as we have attempted to do, or not, the reader will find much that is enlivening in his disputations. While many will want to read Mr. Hancock's book, but few will agree with him. Perhaps it is all the more important for that reason.
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