Life of Keats and Keats as a Poet, Page 2|
by Sidney Carleton Newsom (1900).
Keats's boyhood was full of happiness, but in the midst of his pleasures came misfortune. His mother, who had been in poor health for some time, declined rapidly and suddenly died. The family were bound together by ties of natural affection unusually strong, and Keats was inconsolable in his sorrow, giving "way to such impassioned and prolonged grief (hiding himself in a nook under the master's desk), as awakened the liveliest pity and sympathy in all who saw him." Six months later, July, 1810, his grandmother executed a deed leaving the larger part of her property to the orphan children and placing them under the care of two guardians.
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One of these, Mr. Abbey, with the consent of his associate, assumed control of the children upon the death of Mrs. Jennings a few months later. It was decided that Keats should fit himself for the practical business of life. He was accordingly withdrawn from school and apprenticed to a surgeon for a term of five years. Little is known of his work as an apprentice, but the friendships formed during the years at school were not forgotten. Once a week he walked to Enfield to read and talk with Cowden Clarke. He finished his translation of the Æneid during this time, and became deeply interested in the poetry of Spenser. The Faerie Queene, in particular, fascinated him. "Through the new world thus opened to him [he] went ranging with delight—'ramping' is Cowden Clarke's word; he showed, moreover, his own instincts for the poetical art by fastening with critical enthusiasm on epithets of special felicity or power. 'For instance,' says his friend, 'he hoisted himself up and looking burly and dominant, as he said, "What an image that is—sea-shouldering whales."'" It is doubtless true that the Faerie Queene first stimulated Keats into a consciousness of his own poetical genius. The Imitation of Spenser is, probably, his earliest poetry; but inspired by his master and encouraged by the sympathy of his friend Clarke, he continued to write occasional sonnets and other verse.
In the meantime his work as apprentice was growing extremely distasteful. There is no direct evidence of a quarrel with Hammond or of neglect of duty, yet it is probably that the drudgery of a surgeon apprenticeship and his growing love of poetry were incompatible. He did not as yet, however, give up his profession, but decided to continue his studies in London. He spent a year at St. Thomas's Hospital, successfully passed his examinations, and was appointed, March, 1816, a dresser at Guy's Hospital. He had become skilful and dexterous in surgical operations, and declared to Brown, his personal friend, that he could use the scalpel "with the utmost nicety." But it is quite evident that his tasks were perfunctory. "Sketches of pansies and other flowers" occasionally "decorated the margin of his manuscript note-book." When questioned by Clarke about his studies he observed, "The other day, for instance, during the lecture, there came a sunbeam into the room, and with it a whole troop of creatures floating in the ray, and I was off with them to Oberon and fairy-land." He did his work regularly at the hospitals, but his inclinations were otherwise and he gradually yielded to them.
Clarke, who had settled in London, introduced him to Leigh Hunt. Through the Examiner, Hunt's magazine, he had come to know the author while yet a schoolboy at Enfield, and had learned to admire him. They were soon warm friends and in time became very intimate. Hunt, shallow, graceful, and with a disposition of sunshine, was immeasurably beneath Keats in native endowment, yet he exercised for a time a controlling and moulding influence upon him. They passed much time together and had many tastes in common. Other acquaintances were Shelley, to whom Keats did not take very kindly, Hayden the artist, and Severn, who a few years later was to accompany him to Italy.
In 1817, at the suggestion of friends, he published his first volume of poems. Though containing O Solitude, Sleep and Poetry, and other unmistakable evidences of high poetic faculty, the book made very little impression upon the public. Hunt wrote a friendly though discriminating criticism in the Examiner, and through his influence the volume received notice in several papers. A few chosen friends were enthusiastic and encouraged Keats to continue writing. Yielding to their advice, he made an excursion to the Isle of Wight in order to have the benefit of seclusion and rest, which he felt he needed before beginning new work.
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