John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 79|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
The first reception of this elegy shows that even death could not mollify the enemy. "Blackwood's" parodied the "Adonais" in an "Elegy on a Tomcat." It asserted that a hundred thousand such verses could be easily written, and granted the poem only five readable lines. When the news came of Shelley's own tragic end, the fact that he had the last volume by Keats in his pocket was made the occasion for more ribaldry. "What a rash man Shelley was to put to sea in a frail boat with Jack's poetry on board! Why, man, it would sink a trireme. I lay a wager that it righted soon after ejecting Jack." Christopher North was just as merciless in his "Noctes Ambrosianæ." In 1822, shortly after Keats' death, he published a doggerel sonnet in Italian addressed to Hunt and him. Keats was bantered as Don Giovanni d'Endymioni, il gran poeta d'Ipecachuanha and un gran Giacasso. Twenty years later the "Blackwood's" hostility died down with a querulous apology. It never intended, it said, to hurt Keats' lungs. It asked contemptuously if, when reviewing, the printer's proofs must first be read to a poet while a physician, with thumb on his pulse, indicates how much criticism he can endure. Some of the wits made merry over the grave. Severn relates that often in Rome he heard English travelers utter jibes about the epitaph. "Here lies one whose name was writ in water," they said, "and his poetry in milk and water." He adds that pitiful account of his showing Keats' picture to the old broken Scott and of Scott's distress at the sight of it. "Yes, yes," muttered the conscience-stricken Sir Walter, turning hastily away, "the world finds out these things for itself at last." [Cf. p.97.]
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Of course the fiction that Keats' death was due to brutal criticism caused some reaction in his favor. Shelley's indignation in "Adonais," Byron's persiflage, that unauthorized addition to the epitaph have done much to establish the tradition that the poet died reviling the reviews. As late as 1860 George Eliot believed it. She wrote from Rome of the tomb, "It is painful to look upon, because of the inscription on the stone, which seems to make him still speak in bitterness from his grave." The tradition is not yet wholly dispelled from the popular mind. But all the good it can do has been done, and it should be cleared away, once and for all, in justice to the truth and Keats' self-reliance. Brown was responsible for the addition. It was his own resentment which supplied the false interpretation to Keats' dying request. He acknowledged the mistake. "Swayed by a natural feeling I advised more," he wrote in 1836 to Severn. "I have long repented of my fault and must repeat what I said to you in Rome, 'I hope the government will permit the erasure of every word except those words to which he himself limited his epitaph.'" The erasure has never been made. As long as the addition remains, it will misrepresent the man and the true circumstances of his death. Keats died of hereditary consumption; the autopsy was definitive proof of that. Doubtless his voracious imagination, with no hope to feed upon, weakened his resisting powers and hastened the end. The effect of the reviews was so remote and insignificant as to be altogether negligible. Severn testifies that Keats never once mentioned the "Blackwood's" attacks.
For a decade his good repute was confined to a few friends and casual readers. Those who had the material to write a biography and defend his character were embroiled with each other and delayed publication. Miss Brawne, it is reported, said that the kindest act his friends could do would be to let him rest in oblivion. His notoriety, however, did not die away. In the political quarrels of the magazines his case was a pretext for charges and recriminations. Though unhonored, his name was not forgotten.
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