John Keats: Life and Works, Page 3|
by James Weber Linn (1911).
Keats's first volume of poems was brought out in 1817. Like the Lyrical Ballads of nineteen years before, it fell flat. But no one knew better than Keats himself that it was faulty. "As to what you say about my being a poet, I can return no answer but by saying that the high idea I have of poetical fame makes me think I see it towering too high above me. At any rate I have no right to talk until Endymion is finished." Endymion was the long poem upon which he immediately set to work after his first volume appeared. He wrote with the greatest steadiness. "He sat down to his task, which was about fifty lines a day, with his paper before him, and wrote with as much regularity and apparent ease as he wrote his letters." He tells a friend, "I find I cannot exist without Poetry—without eternal Poetry; I began with a little, but habit has made me a leviathan. I had become all in a tremble from not having written anything of late; the sonnet overleaf did me good; I slept the better last night for it; this morning, however, I am nearly as bad again." Yet when Endymion was published, Keats said in the preface that the poem contained "great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt rather than a deed accomplished. . . . It is just that this youngster should die away; a sad thought for me, if I had not some hope that while it is dwindling I may be plotting and fitting myself for verses fit to live." Such words, though modest, indicate, however, no despondency. Keats was confident, at this time, of his own powers. "I think," he said, "I shall be among the English poets when I die." He was right. But he might well have despaired if he had known how soon that death was coming.
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Endymion, like the shorter poems, made no sensation. It gave a chance, however, for the publication in a magazine called the Quarterly Review of a criticism so harsh and brutal that for years the legend was that it had "killed Keats." Byron wrote in Don Juan,
"John Keats, who was killed off by one critique,
Just as he really promised something great . . .
Poor fellow, his was an untoward fate;
'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,
Should let itself be snuffed out by an article."
And Shelley based on this idea his elegy on Keats, Adonais, the most splendidly colored of all Shelley's vivid poems. We know now, since the publication of Keats's letters, how little the review really affected him. "The attempt to crush me in the Quarterly has only brought me more into notice, and it is a common expression among bookmen, 'I wonder the Quarterly should cut its own throat.'" The real reason for the savageness of the review (which called the poet contemptuously "Johnny Keats," and ordered him "back to the shop, Mr. John, stick to plasters, pills," etc.) was not the badness of Endymion, but the fact that Leigh Hunt and Keats were friends. For the Quarterly was as much a political paper as a literary; it hated Hunt's opinions, and therefore it abused his friends. The review was brutal, the man who wrote it was a cad, but since it indirectly inspired Adonais, who can regret it now?
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