John Keats: Life and Works, Page 6|
by James Weber Linn (1911).
His one attempt at the ballad form, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, is as striking a success in its simplicity as the Odes are in their richness. It is hardly a story, rather a picture of a knight whom love has enchanted to his ruin. It may be that while he was writing it Keats was thinking of his own wild passion and the beginning of his own sad end. At all events the poem equals anything of Coleridge on Coleridge's own ground—the supernatural.
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What heights would Keats have reached had his strength not failed him? No one can tell, of course. He might have thrown away his powers like Coleridge, or lost the gift of melody, like Wordsworth; but this it is hard to believe. The faults of his poetry are boyish faults, faults of judgment and taste, faults which it seems likely he would have altogether outgrown. The charm of it is in spite of these things. Shakespeare as a young poet had precisely the same faults. At his best, and free from these faults, Keats showed a splendor of picture-making imagination far more striking than Shakespeare or Milton possessed at twenty-five. Had he lived to be as old as they, he might perhaps have become the greatest poet in the English language.
THE best edition of Keats's works is by H.B. Forman, in four volumes. The Globe edition is the best in one volume. Two good brief biographies are those of Colvin (English Men of Letters) and William Rossetti (Great Writers' Series). There is no such free and detailed biography as we have of Wordsworth or Shelley. Neither are the essays in criticism of Keats so good as those on other poets. Arnold's (Essays in Criticism, Second Series) is hardly fair; Swinburne's (Miscellanies) is perhaps overdone; as good as any, possibly, is J.R. Lowell's (Prose Works, vol. I). Shelley's great Elegy (Adonais) is based on a misapprehension of the facts of Keats's illness. Leigh Hunt's memories of Keats (in Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries), and in his Autobiography are interesting but fragmentary and not altogether reliable.
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