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John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 9
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).



It is desirable now to examine the poetic personality of Keats. He has attained self-consciousness, chosen his calling and begun his work. What in his equipment is peculiar? From what do the creative impulses proceed?

The Bible is the chief source of our exalted sentiments. A boy, born of English parents, bred into an English community, must come into contact, more or less, with the history, the poetry, the ethics of the Christian traditions. The character of Keats, of course, was affected involuntarily by his environment. But his conscious attitude toward the Christian faith and the church was indifference. Emerson rejected the sacrament of the Lord's Supper because he did n't find it "interesting." Keats turned from the faith and the church because he did n't find them interesting. He admired the splendor, the disinterested service of Jesus; he held blindly, waveringly, to a belief in immortality. Nevertheless all the grandeur of the patriarchs, prophets, psalmists; all the spiritual fervor that inspired the tragedy on Calvary were lost on him. He draws a very few images from Hebrew history; Ruth amid the corn is the most notable instance. Apart from these his poetry derives no tincture of power from the Bible or the Christian faith.

A poet need not be evangelical or even biblical. We expect, though, that a modern poet shall have some conception of the world-scheme as ordered by modern science; that he shall be consistent with the facts of common knowledge. The sunlight, for Keats, penetrates brilliantly into submarine deeps. He would cool his claret in a cellar a mile deep, where the temperature would be very hot. He causes strawberries and apples to ripen at the same time and grows them beside almond trees and cinnamon. Such things will pass, under poetic license, as possible in the empire of the gods. But the fact that the gods must be invoked so often in the apology shows that Keats, in the main, is oblivious of natural law. He may find his raw materials on this earth; he rears his creations in Poets' No-Man's-Land.

There is, moreover, an alien fusion of substance and form. He looks out upon the world with the ideas and instincts of some young ancient Greek who, by a wishing-cap, has been translated through time and space to the Wartburg—let us say—and there educated with Tannhäuser. He holds to the Greek cosmogony: a flat earth, a labyrinthine underworld, a sea floor of palaces. He preserves his Greek individuality: the delight in nature, the reverence for the gods, the easy self-content amid the mystery of man's fate. The Wartburg, with its dire theology of heaven and hell-fire, has not quelled his frank animal joyousness. He has not been contaminated by the morbid soul-searchings of Tannhäuser. He remains a child of the ancient faith. Yet his feeling for that faith, withal, has been transformed by the strange exotic culture. In the fatherland his imagination was like a marble temple, flushed with cool white light. In the mediæval castle it had become like a hall crowded with elaborate furnishings and illumined by the iridescence of stained glass. And the language in which he expresses his feelings seems intricate, indirect, lavish in its fullness of detail. The change has an analogy in his garments. Instead of the simple loose-flowing robe, he wears the tight jerkin and the velvet knightly cloak, rich in colors, embroidery and gems.

The resources of Keats are drawn confusedly from ancient and mediæval life. If we search, however, for his original stimulus to poetry, we shall find it to be neither ancient nor mediæval, but eternal. Novalis had his Blue Flower; Wordsworth his lakes and hills; Dante his Beatrice. The genius of Keats was first awakened by the moon.

PAGE 9 OF 81.

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