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John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 63
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).

XXV

PHILOSOPHY OF HIS ART

Authors read to us from the book of human nature. Each one beholds life as a play of interacting forces, and each emphasizes their relative values according to his character. The Germans have a word for this personal estimate for which there is no adequate equivalent in English, Weltanschauung, Shakespeare's seems all-inclusive. Goethe's shows a similar range. Both hold the contending forces in poise. Dante's also has a universal range, with an added intensity of love and hate. The men of minor genius absorb and utilize only special forces. Heine is of these, and Shelley and De Musset and Poe. However great Keats may be in quality as an artist—place him with Shakespeare if you choose—it is among these men of limited vision that he must find his intellectual station. His vista was widening, yet he never saw life large.

Indeed he absorbs and utilizes only one of the motive forces. The others appear to lie dormant. He had opinions on many subjects; the letters reveal the alertness of his mind. But these opinions scarcely touch his poetry. His age was one of the great destructive-constructive epochs of history; it witnessed a bloody revolution, the spectacle of a world conqueror, shocks of battle, conventions of despots, partitions of nationalities, sacrifices of loyalty to king and to the cause of man. Amid all these the only motive that interested Keats vitally was the principle of beauty in all things. He passed through the clamor of the time, singing, like the lover in Horace, his Lalage of beauty.

Beauty was his panacea for human ills. He shuddered at the fierce impulse of destruction in nature: the tyranny of the strong; the preying of the shark, the hawk, the robin upon the weaker animals; the struggle among men for survival. [Epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds.] Sheer strength, he declared in one of the earlier poems, was like a fallen angel. "Hyperion" was designed to show, in the evolution of culture, the downfall of sheer strength before the all-conquering power of beauty. The Olympians were to vanquish the Titans because it is the eternal law that "first in beauty should be first in might." This was the message. While Wordsworth was communing with pantheistic nature and Shelley was dreaming of perfectibility through reason and Byron was blindly inspiriting the rebels, Keats was proclaiming the regenerative influence in the worship of beauty.

Pursue his principle into its implications. Then we shall see that, if he did not read life large, he read deep.


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