John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 12|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
It must be observed, too, that this youth has peered into the depths of Wordsworth. He has much of "Tintern Abbey" by heart. And though Jeffrey has pronounced upon the "Excursion," "This will never do," Keats believes it is one of the achievements of the times. Moreover, those whom he has chosen from the great dead for reverence,—Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton,—they suggest the high tone of his aspirations.
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Nevertheless his actual performance is not virile. His emotions seek no outlet in action. In fancy he cherishes those images of sensuous dalliance derived from the Spenserian tradition: the convoy of a barefoot girl across a brook; the caress of maidens with breasts of cream; the indulgence in lovers' trances of delight. The imagery, if sensuous, is chaste. The chaste Diana is his goddess; the extreme of voluptuous ecstasy is symbolized in "the sweets of the rose." Note this fact. The moon gives him the keenest emotion; the moon, "maker of poets . . . the enthusiast's friend . . . above all other glories." Here at the outset we see why Keats' poetry is so attractive to women of fine grain. It appeals to the senses, yet it is devoid of all brutality. It may have abandon, but never the wild animal abandon of the decadents. There is a tempering coolness in his blood. At the thought of passionate Italian beauties he desires merely "to float with them about the summer waters."
The scent of the trail is his relish for tidbits of fleeting pleasure. Even this requires a word of interpretation. In the hunt for pleasure there is an involuntary gravitation of his mind from the physical things of the senses to the imaginary. "He never beheld an oak tree without seeing the dryad," Hunt testifies. In the first poem, "I Stood Tip-toe upon a Little Hill," he revels in the scenery of Hampstead Heath, gathering pleasure from some seventeen flowers. The gravitation then draws him away to fable-land, where, through some fifteen classical memories, he rises to his rapture. It is in a mental world, not a physical, that Keats finds his natural home.
The point is important. Matthew Arnold states that Keats was known to the public as the poet of
Light feet, dark violet eyes and parted hair;
Soft dimpled hands, white neck and creamy breast.
How blindly the public must have read the printed page! These very lines were written to express by contrast a superior preference. He forgets such things, he declares, before he dines. Women have no power over him unless they can stir him to an exalted mood. The truth is that Keats' instinct for feminine beauty, though not possessing all the grave dignity, is otherwise similar to Milton's. It is a voluptuous pleasure of the senses; yet that sensuousness is an under-passion of the soul.
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