John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 45|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
Here, too, the power is in the image, not the language. There is no phrase which gives to the chords of feeling a vibrant touch like Poe's "Nevermore" or Keats' "forlorn," "watcher of the skies," "alien corn." The style of the Lake poets is simple and grand. It does not possess, prevailingly, the magic which sends electric vitality into the words as words. Keats had a unique artistic conscience; his impulse was to crowd the line; "to load every rift with ore." Tennyson had the same instinct; he followed Keats and led the Victorian school.
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And, sitting muffled in dark leaves, you hear
The windy clanging of the minster clock;
Although between it and the garden lies
A league of grass, washed by a slow broad stream,
That, stirred with languid pulses of the oar,
Waves all its lazy lilies and creeps on,
Barge-laden, to three arches of a bridge
Crowned with the minster-towers.
This crowded style, indeed, becomes obtrusive; an artificial mannerism. It has infected modern prose. In the prose of Mr. Henry James and Mr. Maurice Hewlett the virtue has been subtilized well-nigh into caricature.
Keats developed it in practical isolation. Shakespeare, of course, was his chief master in this magic of words. A comparison of Shakespeare's environment with Keats' will emphasize the latter's difficulty in bringing it into perfection. When Shakespeare wrote a score of competitive dramatists were around him. Fine phrases budded in the Elizabethan atmosphere like flowers in the open fields. They came as impetuously to the lips as American slang does to-day. Amid this immense fertility of phrase, Shakespeare found language without much effort. He could almost extemporize. Keats had to search. There were no Marlowes, Ben Jonsons, Beaumonts and Fletchers to give him competition and stimulus. His magic is therefore self-conscious. At times he attained the quality of Shakespeare. He did not have his copiousness and range.
The fault of his early style was a kind of euphuism. Shakespeare purged himself of that. So did Keats. In his great work he acquired power and poise. "Isabella" marks the point when he ceased to abuse the privileges of the crowded line. He advanced intellectually in the weight and dignity of substance. He progressed toward perfection of form.
With some definite conception of his poetic nature and the characteristic of his style, we may now examine separately the poems of the last fertile year of his creative work. The period is so short, the poems were conceived, drafted and revised at such interpenetrating times, that there is no advantage in a strict chronological order, even if this were possible. Like all human things they are the imperfect expressions of the reach that exceeds the grasp.
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