John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 57|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
"I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of the Imagination," he wrote in the first flush of his career. He continued in that enthusiasm. The lustre of his imagination shed over reality the glamour of beauty. Wordsworth's Immortality ode was at once a source of inspiration and dread. The elder poet lost the visionary gleam with his youth and turned to the consolations of the primal sympathies and the philosophic mind. Keats had no primal sympathies for Matthews and Leech-gatherers, and he fought off the philosophic mind like a disenchantment. He wanted to perpetuate the glory and the freshness of the dream, in which the imagination remains the eye among the blind and the earth seems appareled in celestial light. And he did it; he preserved his youth. Aubrey De Vere remarks that for Keats there is a peculiar aptness in the phrase "a child of song."
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This imagination, as we have already shown, he used in the conciliation of the sensuous and the ideal. "Men," says Ruskin, "having naturally acute perceptions of the beautiful, yet not receiving it with a pure heart, nor into their hearts at all, never comprehend it, nor receive good from it, but make it a mere minister to their desires, an accompaniment and seasoning of lower animal pleasures, until all their emotions take the same earthly stamp and the sense of beauty sinks into the servant of lust." It is Keats, with his holiness of the heart's affections and his imagination conceiving beauty as truth, who has shown the better way. Epicureanism and Platonism are commonly regarded as antipathies. The pillar saints, like St. Simeon Stylites, maintained an absolute divorce between the senses and the spirit. Keats, anticipating Browning's "Rabbi Ben Ezra," reached a healthy humanism in which the flesh helps the soul and the soul helps the flesh. And this doctrine in his poetry makes his art fulfill its divine mission.
Schiller has a fine passage bearing upon this point in his essay on "The Use of the Chorus in Tragedy." "True art has for its object not merely to afford transient pleasure, to excite a momentary dream of liberty. Her aim is to make us intrinsically and absolutely free. And this she accomplishes by awakening, exercising and perfecting in us a power to remove to an objective distance the world of the senses,—which otherwise only burdens us as dead weight, as blind force,—to transform it into the free working of our spirit and thus to master matter by means of the idea." This is the exact philosophy of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Keats quintessential poem. He passes with his Epicureanism into Platonism. He uses the one in the higher service of the other. In his palace of art such a use of æsthetic pleasure brings liberty to the soul, not nausea.
It is a tradition of criticism that Keats maintains before beauty an attitude of contemplation. "It was with the languor of rest that he associated the idea of enjoyment," says Aubrey De Vere. This is substantially true of all the poems so far considered, especially of the characteristic odes "To a Nightingale" and "On a Grecian Urn." The artist's mood is repose. "It dwelt in him," says De Vere, "with a still intensity, a profound passion." It should be distinguished from the acquanimitas of the Stoics. For Keats' repose is not calm resistance. It comprehends ease, receptivity, inaction.
The violation of this principle of repose, of brooding inaction, before beauty, gave to "Hyperion" a unique power. And it was this which caused the reversal of judgment on Keats.
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