John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 2|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
The poets of the Georgian era were stirred, more or less, by the dynamic energy of a world in convulsions. Burns came and went before the panic. The Englishman of his day was open-minded, benevolent. The songs of the hearthstone touched his heart. He listened graciously to the plea for the dignity of the humble. "A man's a man, for a' that." He assented, with reservations, to the claim of the obscure, and permitted the wind of the laws to be tempered to the shorn lambs. Southey, Coleridge, and Wordsworth appeared later, when John Bull was alarmed about the security of his household. Ardent in the sympathy and enthusiasm of youth, these three were at first too radical for parental approval. But with the panic they returned to the fold. Southey, perhaps, came too easily to save his intellectual integrity. Coleridge, with the mystic's irresolution, drifted back consistently on the logic of events. Wordsworth, slow-moving, obstinate, was dragged home by Prudence, the housemaid. Yet they returned, all three, confessing the errors of youth. John Bull took them to church and to court; and they bent the knee and found favor in the sight of the archbishop and the king.
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After these—that brace of reprobates, Byron and Shelley. One was a ribald and an arch-rebel. He walked in the counsel of the ungodly and stood in the way of sinners and sat in the seat of the scornful. But when Metternich banded the monarchs into the Holy Alliance to destroy those still unsubdued, he rose up with his invincible "I" and cried "Havoc" upon their holy majesties. The other was a dreamer. His telescopic vision penetrated into the far-off millennium. He waged his war against the despots with the bloodless sword of the spirit and the rainbow banner of hope. John Bull disowned them and drove them into exile. He was well rid of the rogues. They defied his authority, blasphemed his traditions, disturbed his domestic peace.
Last of the brood—an inoffensive waif. John Bull—John Keats. Between the philistine and the aesthete what a natural gulf of unconcern! And yet in the aftermath of the Revolution there was feud.
Keats belongs to the Revolution only by virtue of date. Born just after the Terror, his youth was exactly contemporaneous with the public career of Napoleon. Of any agitation of soul, however, a visible sign of the storm and stress, there is no record. He read a Liberal paper by choice in his boyhood; he had a vague instinct for liberty; he venerated Alfred and Tell and Wallace as heroes of freedom. But during his minority he was politically quiescent. After he became of age the spirit of the times touched him so slightly that the casual outbreaks of feeling are humorously crude. Chance cast him with a group of Liberals. From them he took a little heat. In one sonnet he called the Regent "a minion of grandeur" and his ministers "a wretched crew." In "Endymion" there is a diatribe against purple vestments and crowns; it goes off like a blunderbuss. Elsewhere one may find some scorn of red-coated soldiers as "pests of humanity." A few such ventings of spleen can be found in his poems; nothing more. The truth is that Keats was as detached from the furor of contemporary England as a hermit among the hills. Indeed, he cannot strictly be called English at all. Mr. Gosse asserts that "no poet save Shakespeare himself is more English than Keats." This assertion is fatuous, unless English be synonymous with universal. Keats drank inspiration from English poets, long dead. He drew a charm from some native landscapes. He had a love for the sea and out-of-doors. But the essence of his genius—the elixir of beauty, concentrated, chemically pure—cannot be claimed as a racial trait. Moreover, his poetry lacks local color. Cowper, Burns, Wordsworth, Tennyson had this local color; but not Keats. He lived in England. He used the English language. Nevertheless, his creative faculty bears no peculiar characteristic of place or time. He was, in the ancient sense, a maker. His voice was an oracle, issuing from some impenetrable sanctuary. Like King Arthur in the legend, he came mysteriously out of the great deep. And when he departed, after his brief sojourn on earth, the great deep received him again. Yet his figure abides among the imperishable memories. He stands apart, lonely, invested with a mythical radiance, revealing unto mortals a portion of the eternal loveliness behind the veil.
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