John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 30|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
The love of Lorenzo and Isabella is not characteristically Italian. In some provinces, among the lower classes, a poet of Italian parentage tells us, [Rossetti's Last Confession] the girls carry knives in their garters. The jealousy of an Italian lover is proverbially blind and quick in the destruction of its idol. Among the higher classes, if Romero and Juliet be authentically Italian, romantic love surges impetuously and rushes to its object with resolution and daring courage. Keats' conception of love in "Isabella" has neither this self-centred brutality nor this executive audacity. It is only a static emotion. There is no attraction of intellectual affinity, no analysis of complemental personalities. The tone of purity is maintained by aloofness from base appetite and by the atmosphere of reverence. Neither sought to force a selfish will beyond the line of mutual desire. Here is another reason why women of fine grain admire the poetry of Keats. For this forcing of desire, even under the ritual, has been an unvoiced tragedy of womanhood since the days of the Cave-man.
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The poem has defects: some digression, some undue insistence on alien matters, an element of gruesomeness. The last is due to the essential motive in Boccaccio's story, and not to any predilection of Keats for Ford and the Elizabethan decadents. In spite of these minor flaws, "Isabella" shows an astonishing advance toward perfection. The poet has almost mastered a mature style; the lines are crystallizing into impeccable finality. The description of the slaves, gathering "the rich-ored driftings of the flood"; the absent lover prisoned "in dungeon climes"; the autumn wind as "a roundelay of death among the leaves"; the wild eyes of the ghost of Lorenzo, "dewy bright with love"; the influence of those eyes in keeping
All phantom fear aloof
From the poor girl by the magic of their light,—
these gleams of elusive perfection are no longer sporadic. They follow almost as consistently as the links of a chain. And there is in the metal almost no alloy of bad taste.
Mr. Forman has picked "Isabella" as the masterpiece of Keats. Mr. Robert Bridges, with a cry of "ægritude," has damned it with faint praise. Absolute criticism is contentious, too often only a joust of caprices. It is far more profitable to perceive than to publish fiats. In this study we shall waive the rights of the absolute critic for the sake of seeing Keats play out his forces in the struggle for self-realization. "In 'Endymion,'" he said, "I plunged headlong into the sea and thereby have become better acquainted with the soundings, the quicksands and the rocks." With "Isabella" he emerged with a clear sense of his bearings and found a firm footing on the territory over which he was to rule. He has begun to be a great poet by any test.
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