John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 64|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
The division of philosophy is triune. It comprehends the true, the beautiful, the good; the intellectual, the æsthetic, the moral. Keats identifies the true with the beautiful and discredits the importance of anything beyond these. The æsthetic thus absorbs the intellectual and annihilates the moral. The principle of beauty is thus, of necessity, left as the guardian and guide of conduct.
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Keats, as a member of society, appears to have acquitted himself, on the whole, very worthily. Of course he was educated, more or less unconsciously, by the ethics of contemporary England. Yet we can find neither in the records of his life nor in his poetry any evidence that he consciously squared his standards of conduct with a moral code. Certainly in Keats, the poet, that which we call conscience is merged and lost in the instinct for the beautiful. This instinct for him is the arbiter of conduct. "I never can feel certain of any truth but from a clear perception of its Beauty," he wrote in a letter to his brother George. [Colvin's Letters of Keats, pp. 201, 202, 237.] And later: "Even here, though I myself am pursuing the same instinctive course as the veriest human animal you can think of, I am, however young, writing at random, straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness, without knowing the bearing of any one, assertion, of any one opinion. Yet may I not in this be free from sin?" This, the record of a passing moment, is in line with the drift of his formal utterance. Truth he discerned and conduct he regulated through the instinct for beauty.
This exclusive worship of beauty may lead to divergent consequences. It may run down the scale into a creed of art for art's sake, and life for art's sake, until with degenerates, as Ruskin said, the sense for the beautiful may become the servant of lust. Or it may run up the scale, as it does with Keats, into a creed of art for life's sake and life for eternity's sake, until the human spirit attains the perfection of divine being. [Cf. chap. xi, on "The Philosophy of Soul-Making."]
This thought lures us in speculation. For we conceive that a divine being, as he exists unto himself, is unvexed by a conscience. He is compelled to no scrutiny of right and wrong. His nature is complete, above temptation. His existence is one of unerring impulse, so wholly free that all distinctions of good and evil are obscured in the beauty of divine perfection. With him truth is absolute and conduct is the spontaneous expression of his nature; both are so harmoniously fixed in finality that his life is an eternal perception of the beautiful.
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