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John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 15
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).

IX

NEW EXPERIENCE

The next performance of Keats was daring, even foolhardy. An epic about the moon! Epic poets usually have copious preëxisting materials: ballads, legends, racial traditions; an imposing hero. Keats had one personification, Diana, and one mythical incident, her love for the Latmian shepherd; nothing more. But the project involved the enthusiasm of his youth and offered a test to his powers. "It will be a trial of my imagination," he wrote, "and chiefly of my invention, by which I must make four thousand lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with poetry." Hunt tried to dissuade him from a long poem; impetuous Haydon urged him on and advised isolation. Keats followed the latter's advice. Although always grateful to Hunt, and cordial, he became independent of his influence. "Endymion" is all his own.

It is fascinating to watch him during the next few months. New forces play upon his nature. Waves of creative energy surge over him, lift him up, dash him down, exhausted. He experiences the artist's ecstasy; the fever, the fret, the despair. The letters tell the story very vividly.

He left companionable Hampstead and went to the Isle of Wight for solitude and concentration. You can see him on the stage-coach, riding outside, wrapped in a plaid shawl, his hungry eyes peering on the scenery. At Southampton the sight of the sea inspires a new passion:—

O ye! who have your eye-balls vex'd and tir'd,
Feast them upon the wideness of the sea.


He crosses to the island, settles near Carisbrooke ruins, in a primrose spot with a vista of salt water and white cliffs. There his moods are intense, tumultuous. "I find I cannot exist without Poetry—without eternal Poetry," he writes back. "Half the day will not do—the whole of it. . . . I had become all in a tremble from not having written anything of late—the sonnet overleaf did me good. I slept the better last night for it." In the heat of work he loses his poise; his nerves are overwrought; he suffers from insomnia. He flees to Margate on the mainland.

Brother Tom with his fatal cough joins him there. At Margate he suffers an unsatisfied craving for trees. He reads and writes eight hours a day. Shakespeare's picture is above his writing-table. Keats is possessed of a half-playful obsession which fosters a belief that the great Elizabethan has become his presiding Genius. In the letters he is now "everlasting friend" to Haydon. He admits that Hunt is the victim of "self-delusions" and dreads such for himself. Money-matters distress him; he calls them nettles in his bed. Black ravens of distrust fly about him; distrust of his poetic powers. He discovers a new source of weakness, "a horrid Morbidity of Temperament." He broods, beset with doubts and fears. Still he writes steadily, feverishly, eight hours a day. Again his head begins to swim. He heeds the warning and again flees—to Canterbury and the soothing associations of Chaucer.


PAGE 15 OF 81.

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