John Keats: Life and Works, Page 1|
by James Weber Linn (1911).
JOHN KEATS, latest born of the group of poets that distinguished the early years of the nineteenth century, died so young that he may be said hardly to have had a history. He lived less than twenty-six years. It is interesting to compare his career with that of Thomas Carlyle, who was born in the same year with Keats, 1795. Carlyle, by 1860, was perhaps the most famous person in the English literature of his day; even now he would probably be voted by most critics the ablest prose writer of his century. Yet if Carlyle had died when Keats died, in 1821, he would have died unknown. We should not have had even a paragraph in the biographical dictionaries to tell us that he once existed. His only epitaph, his only monument would have been a line on some crude headstone in a forgotten Scottish cemetery. Of course writers of prose do as a rule develop later than poets do. But if Wordsworth had died at twenty-five, or Coleridge, or Scott, or Tennyson, or Browning, the world to-day would remember nothing of them. Shelley was drowned at thirty; but he did all his great work in his last five years. Byron perished in the swamps of Missolonghi at thirty-six, but at twenty-five Byron was still a passionate boy, with little or nothing written that hinted definitely of immortality. Perhaps no other writer of English ever achieved such poetic triumph in his first quarter century as Keats did. His early death was for this reason one of the most mournful things that the history of English poetry had known.
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Keats was a cockney. He was born over a stable in London, of an undistinguished though not a poverty-stricken family. It is said that like many other Londoners of his rank he had difficulty in pronouncing his h's correctly. He was from the first a boy of a strong temper, with a love of fighting that amounted to a passion,—a short, broad-shouldered, fiery lad, quick to resent and quick to forgive. All his short life he was on terms of the closest intimacy with his two younger brothers—George, born two years after John, but bigger and more powerful, and Tom, two years younger still, a frail boy who died of consumption at eighteen. But George Keats had said of John—"we fought fiercely . . . we loved, jangled and fought alternately." Another schoolmate wrote: "Keats . . . would fight anyone—morning, noon and night. It was meat and drink to him." In 1818, Keats himself writes—"went to the theater here the other night . . . and got insulted, which I ought to remember to forget to tell anybody; for I did not fight and as yet have had no redress." About the same time he discovered a stalwart young butcher tormenting a cat, and in a stand-up fight, by rounds, thrashed him soundly. But the testimony to his pugnacity is far exceeded in amount by the evidence of his charm. "The generosity and daring of his character, with the extreme beauty and animation of his face . . . captivated the boys." "He was not merely the favourite of all, like a pet prize fighter, for his terrier courage; but his high-mindedness, his utter unconsciousness of a mean motive, his placability, his generosity, wrought so general a feeling in his behalf that I never heard a word of disapproval from anyone, superior or equal, who had known him." When his mother lay dying of consumption the boy of fifteen "would suffer nobody to give her medicine, or even cook her food, but himself." When the younger brother developed the same disease, it was John who nursed, guarded, and encouraged him as long as the boy lived, and who alone was with him as he died. A few months before John Keats himself died, he wrote to a friend concerning Miss Fanny Brawne, the girl he loved—"The thought of leaving Miss Brawne is above everything horrible—the sense of darkness coming over me. . . . I can bear to die, I cannot bear to leave her. . . . Everything I have in my trunks that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear. . . . There is nothing in the world of sufficient interest to divert me from her a moment. O that I could be buried near where she lives!" A man who could love so and fight so, had it is plain the emotions of a poet.
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