John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 43|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
The third trait is fullness of description. This is the "fine excess"; of dubious value. It is in opposition to the virtue of suggestiveness, so prominent in the canons of art to-day. Keats maintains that "the touches of beauty should never be half-way." The reader should not be left breathless, but content. Here is a source of weakness. The greater poetry should leave us breathless, not content. When it contents, it loses its power like satiety in love. Poe's theory, that poetry should be vague, is more effective than Keats' on this point.
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The glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome
strikes a note of greater power than any of the passages in which Keats practices his precept of fullness of description. He outgrew it, in fact, as his work passed from the luxuriousness of "Endymion" toward austerity in "Hyperion" and the great odes.
The fourth trait, in Keats' own phrase, is "Negative Capability; that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts without any irritable reaching after the fact and reason." He had a dislike for the pursuit of truth by logic. He had a feeling that reason and imagination were antagonistic. The intellectual pursuit of truth quenched its emotional value. Therefore he preferred to remain in a certain degree of obscurity. "O fret not after knowledge," he wrote at a time when his cry was for "a life of sensations rather than thoughts." Herein, too, he saw the mistake. After the clearing up with "Endymion" the cry became "Get learning—get understanding—I find earlier days are gone by—I find I can have no enjoyment in the world but a continual drinking of knowledge." A life of sensations without knowledge, he perceived, subjects one to the tyrannical reactions of the emotions. In knowledge the life of sensations finds a helpful relief from the fever and the chill of the feelings. It eases "the burden of the mystery." With the addition of an intellectual element in his art Keats set himself free from the mawkishness so well described in the preface to "Endymion." Reason became a beneficent check on the imagination. This change of position, however, does not nullify the principle of "Negative Capability," of resting in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts. It only restricts the application to proper use. Reason coöperates with the imagination, though as a subordinate faculty, conferring a half-tone instead of a full glare of light.
The poetical nature of Keats thus comprehends open receptivity, insistence on the normal, a growth from fullness of description to austerity, negative capability, or the suppression of a too zealous curiosity. To these may be added the obvious fact that he is the pure artist. He achieves his effects neither by dramatic incident nor by characters,—solely by the power of beauty.
The charge has been made that his poetry fails to strike the human chords. "The tragedy of 'Isabella' never really comes to us," says Mr. John M. Robertson. "Even 'Hyperion' misses the intense Dantean vibration of inward life." If so, this means that the re-creator of the spirit of the Renaissance is not really a humanist. In one sense the charge is true, in another it is false. The contradiction brings into clear relief the very loftiest element in Keats' genius. He does not dwell in this world of the flesh and of mortal ills. He has taken the sorrows of earth and lifted them up into the calm of eternal beauty. Up there our mortal pains have lost the power to afflict us; our woes can no longer overwhelm our hearts. Tragedy itself, in this exalted sphere, becomes remote, sublime, like Cordelia in death. He who has done this has translated humanity to the realm of the archetypes and has created literature of the ultimate quality. Bacon has defined it. "Literature has something divine in it, because it raises the mind and hurries it into sublimity by conforming the show of things to the soul, instead of subjecting the soul to eternal things, as reason and history do."
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