John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 29|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
The chief poem of the Devonshire cycle is "Isabella." Nothing else shows so strikingly the detachment of the author from his immediate environment. It was written during that spring of continual rain; "the hills are very beautiful, when you get sight of 'em—the primroses are out but then you are in." Nevertheless, the poem has all the dry warm bright languor of Italian skies. Here Keats has again submitted his senses to the luxurious. The joy of the lovers is as the flush of June. They meet at twilight in a bower of hyacinth and musk. The parting is like two fragrant roses blown apart. Here, also, there is a sustained subtlety of sensation. After the tragedy Isabella spreads her perfect arms upon the air and clasps the mind-made image of her lover, while the ghost of the dead in his "dismal forest hearse" is warmed by the consciousness of her brooding anguish. The glove of the murdered man chills her breast to the bone, and the silken scarf in which she wraps the severed head (Boccaccio speaks only of a napkin) is redolent of the flowers of Arabia. Keats shows a great advance in discriminating taste. There is, relatively, very little confusion of values in this poem. That preface to "Endymion" caused a clearing-up. Virile strength has not yet come. The languor still prevails. But the tone has passed above indiscretion and mawkishness.
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A comparison with Boccaccio's tale will demonstrate how consciously solicitous Keats has been to inform the sensuousness with that finer suggestion which, as Lowell said, is the spirit of the senses. In Boccaccio Lorenzo has been a common libertine and Isabella, in her abandon, visits his chamber, stolen-wise, at night. The maid is the conventional tercero. In "Isabella" the attendant is an old watchful nurse. Keats has lifted the story from the level of a vulgar liaison to that of the virgin innocence of courtship. In addition he has deliberately chosen descriptive terms which infuse the atmosphere with holiness. Lorenzo is a young palmer of love. He fears to offend by an unhallowed touch. He dreams of his beloved as a bride. His love, at the height of desire, begs to be shriven. The warmth of feeling is restrained by reverence. As the passion increases, it grows tenderer. Happiness begins with a kiss and suspends with a kiss at evening. When they separate Isabella's joy continues in singing and Lorenzo consoles himself with the glory of the sunset. The love impulse, while craving gratification, is ruled by an unselfish regard for the other's welfare. Finally the real burden of the poem is not amorous delight,—it is loyalty to the dead.
We should fix definitely Keats' conception of love at this time. That superficial condemnation which identifies the passion with honey, ecstasies and swoons will not stand close scrutiny. His conception changes as his powers expand.
In "Endymion" he described love as "an ardent listlessness." He added a caution that it is more than "the mere commingling of passionate breath." It is a "sovereign power," superior to the woes of Troy or the death-day of empires. It subordinates ambition and fame and makes man's mortal being immortal. Yet it is not heroic, of the stuff that drove a Lovelace, for honor's sake, to leave Lucasta for the wars. The "ardent listlessness" is a resignation to intense emotion, heedless of earthly responsibility. It liberates. The sublime passion is invested with peace, like the evening star burning in the ethereal calm of twilight.
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