John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 42|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
The soul is a world in itself and has enough to do in its own home. Those whom I know already and who are grown as it were a part of myself, I could not do without: but for the rest of mankind, they are as much a dream to me as Milton's hierarchies."
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It was in this conscious detachment from the public, whose applause he once craved, that Keats did his truly great work. He ceased to court fame. He cared more for perfect self-realization. His boon companion was the ideal for his art.
This ideal has been a germinal force in modern poetry—profoundly operative. Wordsworth brought calm and nature's healing power. Byron supplied a kind of riotous cosmic energy for battle. Shelley's lyrical cry inspired hope for the future. They were embroiled with their own times, face to face. Keats differs from all three. He attempts to conquer happiness by an evasion of the enemy. He ignores the existence of modern problems. for the jangle, for overwrought nerves, for the sophistries of ephemeral wisdom, he offers the free play of the human faculties in the eternal calm of an illusion which is essential truth. And he finds joy, sufficient unto the day, in beauty.
This is what the Renaissance did for stunted mediæval Christianity. It said to the monks who debased the flesh, to the schoolmen who wrangled over their spider-spun theologies: "Forsake your cells! Forget your morbid superstitious fears! Wash your bodies! Eat the rich fruits of the earth! Make life large! Compel it to be joyful!" The Renaissance gave to the world an epoch of beneficence. Shakespeare and the Elizabethans were the children of its spirit in England. It was extinguished gradually by natural decadence, by the Puritan reaction toward asceticism, by the age of reason and commercialism. The nineteenth century opened in England with a new humanism. Wordsworth, Byron and Shelley were the chief poets of the social phase, with the local color of their day. Keats was the detached æsthete. He restored the pure spirit of the Renaissance.
He is therefore a very definite individuality and his poetical nature has characteristic traits.
The fundamental one is his receptivity to all good things. He is no doctrinaire, no "egotistical sublime." He does not see life through distorting glasses, nor does he force facts to accord with his predilections. He has preferences but not tyrannical prejudices. A poet of his type, Keats declares, has no real identity. He is passive; in a sustained mood of welcome to every impression. An Iago gives him as much pleasure as an Imogen. The moral propaganda is not a part of his business. His sole duty, as an artist, is to take the impression and transmute it by imagination into beauty.
The second trait is the insistence on the normal. In their desire to escape the commonplace and the conventional, many of the so-called Romantic poets were drawn toward the strange, the weird, the horrible. Of this strain of Romanticism Coleridge was the master: Southey a conjurer of bugaboos. In "Sleep and Poetry" Keats made his protest. Later he phrased it in one of his axioms, "I think poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity." Here is a definite rejection of the abnormal. His poetry does not attempt to strike attention by any appeal to morbid curiosity. "Surprise"—the interest of novelty—comes from richness of detail within the limits of the normal. Keats is thus seen as a Romantic who restricted himself to the legitimate in myth, nature and man.
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