John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 7|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
Clarke was Keats' teacher in the kindergarten phase. He fostered his poetic taste and instructed him in the rudiments of metre. This gracious mentor next took some of the experimental verses to a man of considerable literary influence. The manuscripts, arousing curiosity and interest, procured for the author a cordial invitation to Leigh Hunt's cottage in the Vale of Health. The scene shifts from Guy's Hospital to Hampstead Heath.
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Hampstead Heath! There the conspirators assembled to watch Guy Fawkes blow up the House of Parliament. There Nell Gwyn in her mansion received her royal lover. And Coleridge, in his old age, "sat on the brow of Highgate Hill, looking down on London and its smoke-tumult." But Keats has given it more prestige than any of these. In his day it was a rural suburb with ancestral homes, outlying farms and tenements.
Stage-coaches ran from the city with relays of horses for the upslopes. The main road was mediæval with antique inns, antique shops, antique houses. The Heath itself was picturesque with footpaths, stiles, fences, ponds, meadows, woodlands and open wastes where the furze blossomed yellow in summer. From the summit of Primrose Hill one had a vista of the roofs and steeples and drifting vapors of London; and of the dome of St. Paul's, five miles away. In the Vale of Health, not far from the Spaniard's Tavern, Leigh Hunt lived with his "leafy luxuries," his "wine, music and sociality."
Hunt, editor of the liberal "Examiner," was in the lime-light of notoriety when Keats met him. He had printed the blunt truth about the Regent and the courts had declared the truth to be a libel. Those two years in Surrey gaol, more than anything else, perhaps, give distinction to his water-color portrait. He is seen there as a prince of Barmecides. Stone walls made no prison. He played the gentleman of leisure with his piano, books, pictures, flowers, sky-blue ceiling; with his promenades in the gaol-yard, formally dressed, kid-gloved, reckless of being late for dinner. The incarnation brought him some halo of martyrdom.
Hunt made, in his way, a real contribution to the fine art of living. Yet critical tradition patronizes and slurs him. The reason is doubtless his gospel of incorrigible cheerfulness, a gospel that ultimately wears on the nerves. It is well enough to bear woes like a man; but, as Macduff finely declared, one must also feel them like a man. Hunt, somehow, lacked the capacity to feel deeply. His nature is suggestive of Donatello, the faun creature.
The proof is his poetry. He posed as a creator of a style and offered as an illustrious example his "Story of Rimini." Dante's few lines, powerful beyond the reach of the imagination, are poignant with the tense vibrations of tragedy.
Amor condusse noi ad una morte.
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