John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 3|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
Heredity is a subterranean stream flowing out of its cavern into the light of the sun. The scientific historian, candle in hand, peers into the obscurity; he discerns little and speculates much. Scott has the stamp of the clan. Byron has the wild-rake blood of his forbears. Wordsworth inherited the silence in the starry sky and the sleep among the lonely hills. These men are partially explained. But how could the incarnate soul of Beauty descend from a hostler and a liveryman's daughter in a London stable? There was no strange star in the east. Surely it was one of Nature's feats of legerdemain to compound a being so exquisitely fine amid foul air, stale straw, the reek of oil, leather, animal heat, the needs and easements of dumb beasts, while menial washed coach wheels and jested in Billingsgate. The origin of John Keats is an instance of the personal equation of genius, elusive of law. Perhaps there may be forces in earth and heaven which are not dreamed of in our philosophy. In ancient times the poet was inspired from above. In this skeptical age, one dare only affirm, lest a belief in divinity should provoke a smile, that Keats puzzles our science. Taine could not fit him into his scheme of Race, Surroundings, and Epoch. He craftily ignored him altogether.
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The English are zealous to discover in the genealogies of their great men evidences of superior birth. Lowell has had his laugh at Lord Houghton for forcing Keats into "the upper ranks of the middle class." The first biographer, indeed, was wise in his purpose; he knew his public. Even Rossetti, forty years later, clung to euphemism; the poet's father, he declares, was "a natural gentleman." At this date, however, we should cease this hunt for a lack-lustre halo and accept, without shrinking, the bold truth from Charles Cowden Clarke. The father, he tells us, was "a principal servant."
Thomas Keats was born in the Land's End country. He came up to London; a proof of ambition. He worked faithfully and intelligently for John Jennings at the Swan and Hoop livery. He married the master's daughter; he acquired control of the business. Here, in brief, is the story of the industrious apprentice. The fictions of Hannah More which served so long for the edification of youths can offer nothing more admirable.
Unfortunately, in the prime of life, a fall from a horse occasioned his death and made orphans of his four children. He had been a self-sufficient man. Those who knew him were impressed by his backbone and his reticence.
The mother, one must infer, was very ordinary. Her maternal instinct was strong, but her character was conspicuous for feminine frailties. She was prodigal, pleasure-loving, passionate. She lacked self-sufficiency and spiritual loyalty. In less than a year after the burial of her first husband, she took another. An ordinary woman; a creature of the senses.
The genius of Keats is inexplicable. Some of the personal traits, nevertheless, are clearly heirlooms from the parents. The self-sufficiency, the backbone came from the father; the prodigality, the craving for things of the senses descended from the mother. There was a fine possibility in this commingled inheritance; a possibility of central strength around which might play the caprices of passion.
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