John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 80|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
In 1829, very unexpectedly to his friends, Galignani in Paris reprinted his poems with a memoir. English visitors in Rome—those were the years of "Young England" and Reform—began to hunt up Severn and inquire about the graves of Shelley and Keats. When Severn went to England in 1838 he found some considerable interest in Keats, an increasing interest. In 1840 there was issued a collected edition of his works. Two more soon followed. In 1848 Richard Monckton Milnes, a man of social prestige, though not yet Lord Houghton, published "The Life and Letters of John Keats." This book first lifted the dead poet into distinction and set his character aright before the world. A paragraph from the first edition (omitted in the second) sketches the Keats myth as it then existed in the popular fancy.
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"I perceived," said Milnes, "that many who heartily admired his poetry looked on it as the production of a wayward and erratic genius, self-indulgent in conceits, disrespectful of rules and limitations of art, not only unlearned but careless of knowledge, not only exaggerated but despising proportion. I knew that his moral disposition was assumed to be weak, gluttonous of sensual excitement, querulous of severe judgment, fantastic in tastes and lackadaisical in its sentiments. He was all but universally believed to have been killed by a stupid savage article in a review, and to a compassion generated by an untoward fate, he was held to owe a certain personal interest which his poetic reputation hardly justified."
With such false impressions to correct, Milnes wisely decided that a conventional biography, by an advocate, would be unconvincing. Therefore he simply published the documentary evidence; the letters, the testimony of associates; the poems; these interlarded with his own comments and criticisms.
It did its work most effectively. The increase of attention to Keats during the next few years was very gratifying. In 1849 Samuel Phillips reviewed the "Life" in the London "Times" and reprinted the article. In 1852 the Earl of Belfast associated Keats with Moore and Scott in a public lecture. In 1853 Keats was included in "The Lives of the Illustrious." That same year De Quincey's essay was published and Jeffrey's review of "Endymion" was reprinted. There are numerous magazine articles about this time. In 1857 Keats found due recognition in the Eneyclopædia Brittanica, an assurance of dignity for the future.
For a long time the "Life and Letters" remained the authentic source-book of information about the poet. A revised edition was issued by Lord Houghton in 1867. This biography has been supplemented by the work of later scholars with ampler materials at command. Of these Mr. Buxton Forman and Mr. Sidney Colvin are the foremost in laborious service. A legion of critical essays have been written during the past generation, among which three are worth special distinction. Lowell's gives the best insight into the peculiar quality of Keats' genius; Aubrey De Vere's the best interpretation of his type of mind; Matthew Arnold's the sanction of a great critic (sometimes capricious) to his eminence in the natural magic of poetry. Ruskin's tribute, nevertheless, is greater than all others: "I have come to that pass of admiration for him now that I dare not read him, so discontented he makes me with my own work."
The day of debate is passed. Keats has won his place and is as likely to keep it as any other English poetry of the century. For his work is wholly independent of the little systems that have their day and cease to be. Tennyson, so secure in the homage of his own generation, is not so sure as Keats for those to come. Great contemporary vogue is a sinister gift of fortune, often illusive. Keats survived without a vogue,—an evidence of intrinsic value detached from time. He feeds a permanent hunger in human nature; and even though socialism should be the destiny of the race, the hunger for beauty would still remain.
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