Life of Keats and Keats as a Poet, Page 4|
by Sidney Carleton Newsom (1900).
KEATS AS A POET
We usually think of Keats as one of the chief poets of the "Romantic School." In the history of the development of English literature he is given a place with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Byron. It is well, however, when possible, to indicate more precisely a poet's relations to his contemporaries.
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Wordsworth complained that with one or two exceptions not a single new image of external nature had been given from the publication of Paradise Lost to the Seasons—a period of sixty years. Of course Wordsworth's statement is too sweeping; yet the exaggeration may be pardoned when we consider the extent to which the English poets were hampered by literary precedent at the beginning of this century. Ideals of any sort which have come gradually and have fastened themselves firmly in the public mind cannot be attacked with impunity. The criticism directed against Wordsworth was hardly less than downright insult. The principles of poetic composition which he was at pains to state very minutely in the prefaces to his poems were received with scorn, and he himself was the subject of ridicule not unmixed with contempt. Hazlitt declares that "if Byron was the spoiled child of fortune, Wordsworth was the spoiled child of disappointment." After his thirtieth year Wordsworth wrote very little genuine poetry, and Coleridge's best work appeared in the Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth stubbornly upheld his theories to the end of his long life, and Coleridge lost himself in the mazes of philosophy and metaphysics.
There is no doubt, however, that they sowed the seeds of a revolution whose results have been altogether beneficial. Their sympathies were with the great Elizabethans, and the tendency of much in their theories of poetry and in their practice points to the Age of Shakespeare as the only literary period worthy of serious attention. Keats had been called "alike by gifts and training a true child of the Elizabethans." A close study of his poetry makes the truth of the statement evident. Responding to the influences of his time, he looked beyond his own age and the one preceding for his ideals, and found them in Milton, Spenser, and Shakespeare.
Coming directly to a consideration of the qualities of his style, we are at once impressed with his extraordinary susceptibility to the beauty of the natural world. A friend observes that "He was in his glory in the fields. The humming of a bee, the sight of a flower, the glitter of the sun, seemed to make his nature tremble; then his eyes flashed, his cheek glowed, and his mouth quivered." He is at home with his sensations, and his sympathy with nature is not of the intellectual or reflective kind. He does not seek to harmonize his love of nature with any system of philosophy, but rather to know and enjoy without restraint the beauty of her forms. This freedom from conventions is a partial explanation of the utter simplicity and exquisite freshness of his verse. Face to face with natural phenomena he was untrammelled by prejudices. No theory chilled his innocent delight nor retard a complete devotion to the charm of sensuous beauty. It was his instinct to respond quickly and eagerly to all appeals to the eye and ear, and to realize for his reader the perfect beauty of the woods and fields.
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