John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 13|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
SLEEP AND POETRY
In the minor poems of 1817 we find hints of genius. "Sleep and Poetry," the last of the collection, shows genius in the larval state. It is easy to rail at its floridity and obscurity. A little sympathy, or even open-mindedness, will detect an atmosphere of awe. This is "the Chamber of Maiden Thought." A fire burns here, the fire of a vestal fane. It is the heart's confessional and the critic should listen to these ardent outpourings of a soul with priest-like deference.
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The title recalls the library of Hunt, the naps on the couch, the poetic aspirations amid the busts and pictures. Sleep and poetry, indeed, are only points of departure for Keats to talk about himself, his art and his hopes for the future.
The poem opens with a display of figurative language, lustrous, incongruous. Sleep is a riddle propounded in eight queries. It then experiences several incarnations: as a watchful fairy, a nurse with lullabies, an imp with mischief for a beauty's hair. Poetry calls forth nine epithets and suggests two methods of inspiration, by thunder and by whisper. Life is described in a chain of eight metaphors, two of them worthy of remembrance: the light uplifting of a maiden's veil; the slumber of an Indian while his boat dashes down the falls. Such a profusion of imagery is gaudy ostentation. Keats has indulged in a riotous abuse of the analogical faculty.
In this poem occurs the well-known attack on Pope and the school of Boileau, an attack that stirred the hostility of Byron. Here again Keats is in revolt against the rational mechanical epigram style of the eighteenth century. The diatribe is doubtless an echo of the warfare by Hunt, although Keats had a natural antipathy for Pope and all his followers. He regards them as chippers and filers; callous to beauty; blasphemers of "the bright Lyrist." One sentence ridicules the technique of the heroic coupleteers most effectively:—
They swayed about upon a rocking-horse
And thought it Pegasus.
There is another passage, hitherto regarded as obscure, in which Keats makes a stricture upon those contemporary poets whose work he otherwise greets with delight. This stricture helps to define his own individuality. The dark lines speak of certain subjects as monster Polyphemes and of sheer strength as comparable to a fallen angel. Hunt gives a clue of interpretation. He says the lines refer to "the morbidity that taints the productions of the Lake poets." The censure would then fall upon Southey for his evil magicians in the Domdaniel caverns; upon Coleridge for the witchcraft of Lady Geraldine. And Wordsworth, too, may be slightly under the ban; for the stout-hearted Jeffrey once declared that certain of his poems filled him with "a giddy terror." Keats is thus seen in opposition to that current of wild romanticism which came from Germany, flowed muddily through "Monk" Lewis and Anne Radcliffe and clarified into poetry with the "Lakers." The tales of terror had no fascination for him. He was blind to that penny-dreadful muse from Germany which favored bugaboos and sought to inspire haunting fears.
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