John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 4
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
An accident may have had much to do with the making of his peculiar temperament. The slow process of nature was forced in his birth. Am imprudence of the joy-loving mother is said to have been the cause. The child was brought forth two months before his time, and the physiological result was an organism of high-strung nerves. The sensitiveness of Keats was due, in part, very probably, to this premature delivery. In the feverish haste of his entrance into the world there may have developed that hysteria which so frequently shook his poise and drove his emotions from laughter to tears.
One incident gives a vivid picture of his childhood. The mother, ill in bed under the doctor's injunction of quietness; the boy standing guard at the door of her room, sword in hand, a brown-eyed curly-headed midget, ready to repel any intruder. It is too bad that Haydon's version is different. At any rate the fact remains that family affection in Keats was intense.
Enfield lies ten miles north of London. You may reach it by the John Gilpin route. The old school was at the town end, a red Georgian mansion with cherub faces and panels of flowers on the façade. It trained crews of some seventy boys under the discipline of Master Clarke and the fag system. The main building and the classroom were set in a garden. Beyond there was a vista of a pond, a patch of woodland, a sweep of green meadow with cattle,—poetic in the shifting light of sun, mist and moon. After the hubbub of play it was on this world of silence that young Keats fed his unsatisfied feelings. London—how stupid to call him a cockney—never made any impression upon him.
PAGE 4 OF 81.
He came to this school a litel clergeon in frocks. But he cared naught for his books and he sang no Alma redemptoris. He preferred the delight of battle with his peers. The diminutive youngster was all energy; an unstable compound of daring, defiance, pugnacity, anger, tyranny, generosity, good-will, melancholy, brooding loneliness. He raged sometimes and his comrades had to hold him down. But he won leadership by "terrier courage" and he gained friends by magnanimity. He fought, shook hands cordially and loved best those who fought him. Often passion swept through him like a topical gust and left him in misery. Grief brought paralysis to his energies; subdued him with mental tortures. When suffering, he shut his lips and hid himself, self-reliant yet helpless.
This temperament, though combative, is not martial. It is a prey to reaction. The mobile emotions, sometimes hysterical, are rather the evidence of imagination in the throes of blind beginnings. Usually they beget mere nerves; occasionally creative power.
Note the next phase. Puberty concentrated the chaos of energies into intellectual ambition. 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 AEneid into prose. In the spare hours he read most of the books in the school library and mastered the popular compends of mythology. His schoolmates dubbed him "a learned Lemprière." The atmosphere of his studiousness, however, was not prosaically academic. 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," the lad said to a companion, "should not be read at night."