John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 66|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
The story of Keats as a poet draws toward the close. In "Otho the Great" he is the phrase-maker for a collaborator's ideas. In "The Cap and Bells," done after the physical collapse, a distracted mind is pathetically trying to smile and be merry. We shall neglect these and turn to the man as he passed into the throes of death.
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The love for Fanny Brawne was one of the malign forces of fate. The printing of the Brawne letters aroused much protest. One man, at least, has refused to read them. Mr. Colvin omitted them from his collection. Matthew Arnold read and regretted their publication. Mr. Buxton Forman, foremost in laborious service for Keats, first printed them—for private circulation. "There is nothing," he says, "for any one to be afraid of." Certainly these letters add vividness to the tragic picture of the last days and reveal Keats' melancholy end as the operation of nature's immutable laws. It is a debatable question whether a great poet has a right to domestic privacy, if that privacy is necessary for the full comprehension of his character. While we incline toward the conservative attitude, we believe the publication of these letters was justifiable. The gain for Keats is greater than the loss. Our sympathies are deepened and our understanding is quickened. Keats, the lover, is still the poet. He loved a woman as he loved his art. The defects of the lover are the virtues of his poetry.
Matthew Arnold has found in the Brawne letters material for special discredit to the writer's character. He quotes the ninth and says it is a sign of enervation, of lack of restraint; such as might be expected from a surgeon's apprentice in a breach of promise case. He brings this letter down to the level of cheap scandal.
Surely there are times when the literary critic should cast aside his academic robe and be simply human! And at no time is such generosity in better taste than when he is invading the privacy of the dead and reading love letters in cold type. If we do intrude upon Keats' love affair and sit in judgment, let us confine that judgment to matters of public concern. There are bounds of jurisdiction for courts of law. Why not for literary criticism? Let literary criticism beware of the temptations of Peeping Tom. Let it read such letters as these, if it must, with deference and common humanity.
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