John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 44|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
The style of Keats was also a germinal force in modern poetry. Mr. Gosse asserts that it was not original,—he maintains that it was growing to be "a crystallization of all the best elements of the poetry of the ages into one perfect style." There are in Keats the echoes of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakepeare, Milton, Dante and others. If originality be the repetition of a type with a difference, and the difference, in this case, be nigh unto perfection, we should take Mr. Gosse's statement as testimony of great originality in the style of Keats. Original or not, it was certainly unique among his contemporaries.
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In the immature state it was little short of chaos. Gifford described it as consisting of "the most incongruous ideas in the most uncouth language." In our day Mr. Swinburne—a howling dervish among critics (yet a critic)—has condemned the early work as "the most vulgar and fulsome doggerel ever whimpered by a vapid and effeminate rhymester in the sickly stage of whelphood." It is a far cry from this first sad phase (if it really was so sad) to the last, where Keats attained that sovereign mastery of language which is Shakespearean.
He practiced magic with words. This is the chief virtue of his style. In this respect he was the precursor of Tennyson. For Tennyson is less seer than magician of language.
Distinguish between magic and emotional enthusiasm. Look at Keats in his environment. See the lack of stimulus for his peculiar kind of magic.
Scott's poetry had swiftness and vigor, Byron's style had blood, bone, sinew. Shelley had his own power of incantation, but Keats did not feel it. Wordsworth, of the poets then living, bore the heaviest influence upon him. Yet he did not affect his form. For Wordsworth, with his theory of bald poetic diction, was more concerned with the power of substance than language. Take one of his best poems, "The Solitary Reaper," and observe the source of its appeal. After the picture of the girl, singing at her work, it concludes:—
I listened till I had my fill;
And when I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore
Long after it was heard no more.
The passage is poetic, beautiful. Yet no one word, taken by itself or as a part of a phrase, has any individual imaginative force. The diction is as commonplace as "house" or "field." The power is in the mind's image of the whole. Take another instance, from Coleridge, whose magic is often close to Keats', one of the most effective pictures in the "Ancient Mariner":—
The body of my brother's son
Stood by me knee to knee.
The body and I pulled at one rope;
But he said naught to me.
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