John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 11|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
THE VOLUME OF 1817
Keats begat Tennyson," says Mr. Saintsbury, "and Tennyson begat all the rest." The late poet-laureate would have objected to the first assertion. Arnold, Browning, Rossetti and Swinburne might well protest against the second. Let us modify the statement. Let us say that Keats created a distinguished original style and that he has had a strong influence on Victorian poetry.
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Originality is the repetition of a type with a difference. It lies sometimes in insight, sometimes in fresh emphasis. Falstaff is the fat comical braggart with the addition of an agile brain. Lincoln contributed original power to the idea of popular rule when he spoke of "a government of the people, by the people, for the people." The query about originality in the juvenile poems of Keats, then, concerns new vision and new energy of expression.
In the volume of 1817 there are two poems of description, three epistles, seventeen sonnets, a scattering of short negligible pieces and a long poem of personal revelation. As a basis for composition—the last poem is reserved for separate discussion—he had his typical things: landscapes of nature, literary friendships and the models of other poets. To these typical things what does he add that is significantly different?
The consensus of critical opinion answers, "Very little!" The volume is interesting mainly as material for biography. There are some signs of promise: independence, enthusiasm, copious richness of detail. The defects are striking: incoherent ideas, perverse diction, forced awkward style. Except for one sonnet, there is no final excellence. Isolated lines, however, give hints of noble game still at large in the preserves of his imagination. They give us the scent for the trail.
His mind is alert for fine subtle perceptions. Most of us are Peter Bells; the primrose is only a yellow primrose. Keats shows the true poetic instinct in the search for emotional values in the commonplace. Sometimes it is strained, inapt. He measures time, for instance, by the reading of two sonnets and the flight of a bee around a peach tree. But there is also some rare discernment of undiscovered delight: the early sobbing of the morn; the sigh that silence heaves; the voice of crystal bubbles; the taper fingers of sweet peas; the wine of lustre like a falling star; the lily and the musk rose as emblems of youthful lovers; the pose of the lady as keenest in beauty when she stands with parted lips, listening.
He records his dislike for murky London, beloved of Pope, Addison, Johnson, who still governed the public taste. He is in revolt. He belongs to the new age. He is infected with the "Return to Nature." He finds enchantment in the woods, with some old ruin near by and an intellectual comrade for company. But he is not world-weary. He is not touched by the spiritual malady of the Weltschmerz. He does not seek nature, like Byron, to weep out his woes on the breast of the great mother. Keats simply loves to lie on the grass, write verses and dream of fable-land. Chancer, watching his favorite daisy, was not more joyously at ease.
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