John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 14|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
"Sleep and Poetry" reveals his high conception of his calling. He abjures the dogmatic authority of reason, maintained by Pope. He would restore to poetry the supremacy of imagination. But he would not permit the imagination to be a purveyor of emotions of dread; to conjure up Domdaniel demons or even beautiful malignant witches. Poetry is "awful sweet and holy." It is a safeguard against worldliness and folly. It has a virtue to cleanse the soul for "the great Maker's presence." Its mission is to be the friend of man, to soothe his cares, to lift his thoughts. The lyrical cry of his art is "Rejoice! Rejoice!"
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And they shall be accounted poet-kings
Who simply tell the most heart-easing things.
And the cry of his present desire is for ten years of preparatory education.
First of all he would have experience in the refinement of the senses. How naïvely he gives the details! He would sleep on the grass, feed upon fruits, catch nymphs in the forest, steal kisses, bite their white shoulders, watch their dances, follow one into a tropical bower to rest—note the simile—like two gems in a pearly shell. This is not sensuality. It all happens in Pan's realm. If there be any indiscretion in the printing of such dalliance, as suggestive of the Babes in the Woods, let it be excused on the ground that the inexperienced poet, aiming at the simplicity of ancient pastoral innocence, fell short into simpleness. Even the austere must be touched by the simple deliciousness.
The refinement of the senses is only preliminary. The higher education of his desire is the knowledge of actual life; the experience of virile emotions; if need be, the agonies of struggle. Keats here seems to yearn with a man's yearning for the Odyssean trials, that give play to the heroic energies. Hitherto his life has been easy, remote from storm and stress. In his inexperience he pictures the great hurly-burly of the world in an apocalyptic day-dream. The charioteer of life, riding upon a cloud, leads the visionary people. They pass, in streaming procession, laden with joy or sorrow or sin, lured on by ever-fleeting music. A few of the lines are almost Dantesque in the economy of diction and the range of second sight. They recall that sad procession in the "Inferno," the sandy plain, the pelting balls of fire.
Lo! how they murmur, laugh and smile and weep:
Some with upholden hands and mouth severe;
Some with their faces muffled to the ear
Between their arms. Some clear in youthful bloom
Go glad and smilingly athwart the gloom;
Some looking back and some with upward gaze.
The mood of the author of "Sleep and Poetry" is that of a neophyte in a temple of divine mystery. The blind impulses of boyhood have passed into light. The call has come. He shrinks, hides his "foolish face," knowing his lack of wisdom. But with the courage of the valiant and the distrust of the modest he dedicates himself with head bowed before the vast idea of his art. Such humility and awe call up inevitably the memory of the chosen one on Horeb who veiled his eyes before the burning bush.
And yet they told him, those first reviewers, to go back to his apothecary shop and stick to plasters, pills and ointment boxes.
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