John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 34|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
There were some grounds of literary opposition. The public taste still held to the correctness and conventionalism of Pope. Wordsworth, with his simplicity and sincerity, was slowly educating taste to a different standard. He was then tolerated. But Scott and Byron, neither antagonistic to Pope,—the one a Tory, the other a lord,—had the vogue. And these poets were both intensely masculine. The Cockney School stood for a new standard of excellence that seemed feminine. The style was not simple, and apparently not sincere. It was ornate, often forced to the limits of affectation. In war-times the masculine spirit is contemptuous of feminine virtues on the field. Very naturally, then, this new style excited hostility; and it was attacked, of course, at its weakest points.
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The reviews were authoritative and powerful. They were the chief agency by which an author reached his public. They certainly did destroy Keats' reputation for a time; yet just as certainly, by their violence, they kept his name alive until Tennyson came with his fine art and poetry of peace. That was the age for Keats. His birth was premature both in body and spirit.
The masculine spirits, still combative, fell afoul of him and tried to dispatch him. The reviews, especially "Blackwood's," created a phantom, called it "Johnny Keats," and made it stalk and play the maudlin idiot on the stage of vulgarities, obscenities, horrors, which they had dressed up for Hunt. The maudlin idiot was bad enough; but the malignant cruelty cannot be fully appreciated until the phantom is seen on that stage.
Hampstead forms the background. It is pictured as a hotbed of treason and immortality. Those who infested this resort were devoid of patriotism and religion. Their habits were depraved. In life and writings they flaunted atheism, railed at marriage, upheld wife-desertion, glorified adultery and eulogized incest. Hunt was set on a throne as the king of Cockaigne; a man of low birth, vulgar manners, presumptuous in the affectation of culture. He was "a universal sore of vanity"; his intellect was "prostrated and enslaved to the harlot deity." He was the Cockney Homer; Haydon was the Cockney Raphael; Hazlitt was the Cockney Aristotle. Keats, "the amiable but infatuated bardling," was caricatured as Æsculapius, dogging the king's heels and seeking to stuff flattering sonnets into his waistcoat. Out of this court proceeded hatred of all the sacred traditions of life. The infidels reveled in grossness and voluptuousness and cherished a profligate ambition to ruin society.
These were the conventional tactics of partisan journalism: the magnification of slight pretexts into monstrosities and the publication of rumors that were essentially lies. Keats was thus portrayed to the public as a weak-minded member of a set of anarchists and free-lovers. And the public, in those days, had not learned to read the papers with the grain of salt.
Now for the assaults made upon Keats alone.
Gifford was doubtless an honest fighter. Rossetti speaks of his article as a despicable act of brutalism. Let justice be done to Gifford. He was blind, but not abusive. He treated Keats with contempt, yet he cited real grounds for scorn. He collated the offensive things like a scholar and printed them for his reader. He confessed that he had read only the first book of "Endymion" and found that unintelligible. He admitted "powers of language, rays of fancy, gleams of genius." The characteristics of Hunt's style he found accentuated in Keats. He called him "the simple neophyte" of Hunt and asserted that he more than "rivaled the master in the insanity of his poetry." But at the close he held his judgment as reversible and his mind as open to the light. This is the assumed candor of a bigot. Gifford was a professional advocate, hard-headed and hard-hearted. He deserves the discredit that belongs to the advocate who poses as a critic. From the advocate's standpoint, everything he said, except one misquotation, was substantially true. There was little exaggeration, yet no abuse.
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