John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 70|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
My dear girl,—What shall I say for myself? I have been here four days and not written you. . . . Believe in the first letters I wrote you: I assure you I felt as I wrote. I could not write so now. The thousand images I have had pass through my brain—my uneasy spirits—my unguessed fate—are spread as a veil between me and you. Remember I have had no idle leisure to brood over you. I would fain, as my sails are set, sail on for a Brace of months longer—I am in complete cue—in the fever; and shall in these four months do an immense deal. This page as my eye skims over it I see is excessively unloverlike and ungallant. I cannot help it. . . . My mind is heaped to the full; stuffed like a cricket ball—if I strive to fill it more it would burst. I know the generality of women would hate me for this; that I should have so unsoftened, so hard a mind as to forget them; forget the brightest realities for the dull imaginations of my own Brain. But I conjure you to give it a fair thinking; and ask yourself if it is not better to explain my feelings to you than write artificial passion.
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The defects of the lover are the virtues of his poetry. He is all poet. This love is born wholly of the imagination. It ardors are quenched by the creative activity of the artist. If we examine closer we shall find that this love is devoid of the instincts of natural affection. It brings pain as well as joy. It seeks to avoid its object. Keats went up to London, stayed there four days and returned to Winchester without seeing her. He seems to shun the accompaniments of marriage. "I tremble at domestic ties," he writes to her. "God forbid that we should settle—turn into a pond—a stagnant Lethe—a vile crescent, row, or buildings. . . . Go out and wither at tea parties; freeze at dinners; bake at dances; simmer at routs." Those traits which enable a woman to be a helpmeet make no impression on his consciousness. Those attractions which develop from the interplay of two mated natures are all reduced to one. "Why may I not speak of your Beauty, since without that I never could have lov'd you? I cannot conceive any beginning of such love as I have for you but Beauty." In these letters there is little or no homage to the minor graces which make the wife—
A Creature not too bright or good
For human nature's daily food.
Excepting the last sonnet, we usually think of this love as directly provocative of no real poetry. There is an "Ode to Fanny," some "Lines to Fanny," a "Sonnet to Fanny,"—all three of no artistic value. They phrase the darker broodings of the letters,—the jealousy, the pestering suspicions, the moods of despair. In these by-products of his imagination he yearns for the early days when his fancy was free. He pictures his present condition in the metaphor of a hateful land, the dungeoner of his friends; a land of wrecked lives, where the winds are icy, the meadows barren and the birds do not sing. He cries to Love for mercy and proclaims himself a wretched thrall. If one makes a composite of this imagery, it is almost impossible to restrain the belief that he dissolved these personal experiences in some detached mood and brought them forth again, crystallized, in that ballad which all critics agree is beyond criticism. The essential elements are the same. "La Belle Dame sans Merci," hitherto regarded as an isolated trifle, so perfect that it is no longer a trifle, is thus seen to be an autobiographical revelation, concealed by art, of this victim of love. It is the epitome of Keats' own enchantment. [It is possible that the ballad was written prior to the three personal poems. The parallel of imagery is none the less striking.]
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