John Keats: Life and Works, Page 2|
by James Weber Linn (1911).
But what of the training that is as essential as emotion to the productivity of poetry? That training Keats had, too. In fact, the careful education of all great English poets (except Shakespeare) is one of the most noticeable things about them. Poetry is the expression of deep feeling, but such expression to be effective must be disciplined. From the time he was fourteen Keats read voraciously—he even read at his meals when he was a schoolboy, eating "from beyond a book." History, philosophy, science, he read whatever came his way; the Greek and Latin classics also he devoured, the Latin in the original, the Greek in translation. His favourites always, however, were poetry and romance. After he left school he was advised by his guardians to study medicine, and in the old-fashioned way he first served as office-boy and general helper to a physician, and later "walked the hospitals" in London—that is, acted as interne. His fellow-students, who knew his passion for reading and versifying, and the many nights he spent in the study of other than medical works, were surprised when at the end he stood high in his examinations and was licensed as a surgeon. He performed various operations creditably; but his dreams and longings invaded the operating-room and terrified him with the fear that he might at some critical moment become careless. Perhaps of all men a doctor can least afford to think of anything except his work. So Keats deliberately turned his back on surgery. "My last operation," he said to a friend, "was the opening of a man's temporal artery. I did it with the utmost nicety, but reflecting on what passed through my mind at the time, my dexterity seemed a miracle and I never took up the lancet again." He was hardly twenty-one. He had been already a poet in heart and aspiration for five or six years. Now he turned to poetry as a profession, and in the next three years achieved undying fame.
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Of course he had for some time been writing and circulating verses in manuscript among his friends, of whom he had many. The dearest to Keats at this time was Charles Cowden Clarke, son of his old schoolmaster. The best known to us were Shelley (with whom Keats was on friendly terms, though never intimate, or able to forget the difference in their rank), and Leigh Hunt, a handsome, black-haired, light-hearted improvident young man, a third rate poet and essayist, but a first rate critic, who is now remembered chiefly for the greater men who knew and liked him, and on whose work and life he exercised a strange influence. Hunt had been prosecuted, and imprisoned for two years, for no other offense than telling the truth in a newspaper he conducted, about the Prince of Wales. The result was that many of the young men of the time, haters of tyranny and lovers of free speech, were attracted to Hunt and made friends with him. Keats met Hunt at the critical time when surgery was beginning to prove itself an unsafe trade for a born poet. Hunt read the young doctor's verses and encouraged him heartily to go on writing, and published for him his first printed poem. They read together, wrote sonnets (in a kind of friendly competition) on the same subjects, and became known to the other literary men of the day as intimates.
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