John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 32|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
The climax of the journey, however, was the ascent of Ben Nevis, with the glimpses into its sheer dark chasms. This is the highest mountain in Scotland. Keats was so deeply affected that he resolved never to ascend another mountain in the British empire. "These chasms are fifteen hundred feet in depth and are the most tremendous places I have ever seen. We tumbled in large stones and set the echoes at work." The sonnet, written amid the whirling mists of the summit, addresses the mountain as the symbol of man's mental darkness. The moods of Keats were very flexible. The letter containing the solemn description of Ben Nevis is full of jocularities. He jests at the shifting caps of mist as more changeable than the fashions of women's bonnets. He makes merry over the toils of climbing. "I have said nothing yet of our getting among the loose stones, large and small, sometimes on two, sometimes on three, sometimes four legs—sometimes two and stick, sometimes three and stick, then four again, then two, then a jump, so that we kept on ringing changes on foot, hand, stick, jump, boggle, stumble, foot, hand, foot (very gingerly), stick again, and then again on all fours."
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Shortly afterward his throat became so ulcerated that a doctor advised him against further exposure. Leaving Brown, he took a sailing packet at Cromarty for home. Nine days later a strange figure with fur cap, plaid shawl, ragged clothes and a knapsack appeared before the astonished friends in London. His face was flushed with fever. He had traveled a thousand miles, six hundred on foot, in all kinds of weather, and the break in health was the beginning of the end.
This cost of the northern tour was greater than the gain. He had seen mountains; but Keats was not to be a poet of mountains. "The first mountains I saw weighed solemnly upon me," he wrote Bailey. "The effect is wearing away." The trip had not established any new current of poetic feeling. Of all the poems of the Scotch cycle only two sonnets arrest a profound mood. He did not find amid the hills "the presence that disturbs" or "the spirit that impels all thinking things." Keats had laid the lines of "Tintern Abbey" close to his heart. Nevertheless this Scotch trip demonstrated that he had no vein of mysticism. A Wordsworth, with his intense concentration, would have observed from a single narrow channel of thought. Keats' personality was too open, too adaptable, too sensitive to everything for the mystic's detachment from tangible realities.
The letters reveal a temperament of alert curiosity and pliant sympathy. They show an all-inclusive grasp of details. His sight is quick for peculiarities of men and manners. He writes two pages full of sharp discriminations between the Irish and the Scotch character. His attention is easily diverted. His head is in a whirl from considering 'the million likings and antipathies of our moments." He exclaims, "Oh, scenery, that thou shouldst be crushed between two puns!" He turns from scenery to feast his eyes upon a group of children, "some beautiful faces and one exquisite mouth." He was keenly alive to the irritations of gadflies, the bag-pipe, "the cursed oat cake" and the thousand and one incidents of tramping.
The tour broadened his mind with experience, undoubtedly. Yet this experience was not such as he could use in his poetry to any extent. The Scotch cycle of verse contains only two things of fine finish, the sonnet on "Ailsa Rock" and the ballad on "Meg Merriles." The northern scenery did not stimulate his creative genius. It was too cold, too rugged, for one who fed his hunger on images of warmth and luxury. The call of the wilds is the call of mystery or of energy. Keats is still a poet of indolent repose. He would have gathered far more poetic material in Italy. For all this, though the cost was too great, the visit to Scotland was of some benefit. The very ruggedness of the scenery was a tonic to his natural love of richness and languor. In the work that comes after there is an ever-increasing austerity of style. And the triumphant "Hyperion" has the strength of the hills.
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