John Keats: The Apothecary Poet, Page 1
by Sir William Osler (1908).
We have the very highest authority for the statement that 'the lunatic, the lover, and the poet, are of imagination all compact'. In a more comprehensive division, with a keener discernment, Plato recognizes a madness which is not an evil, but a divine gift, and the source of the chiefest blessings granted to men. Of this divine madness poetry occupies one of the fourfold partitions. Here is his definition: 'The third kind is the madness of those who are possessed by the Muses; which, taking hold of a delicate and virgin soul, and there inspiring frenzy, awakens lyrical and all other numbers; with these adorning the myriad actions of ancient heroes for the instruction of posterity. But he who, having no touch of the Muses' madness in his soul, comes to the door and thinks that he will get into the temple by the help of art—he, I say, and his poetry are not admitted; the sane man disappears and is nowhere when he enters into rivalry with the madman.'
Here, in a few words, we have expressed the very pith and marrow of the nature of poetry, and a clearer distinction than is drawn by many modern writers of the relation of the art to the spirit, of the form to the thought. By the help of art, without the Muses' madness, no man enters the temple. The poet is a 'light and winged and holy thing', whose inspiration, genius, faculty, whatever we may choose to call it, is allied to madness—he is possessed or inspired. Oliver Wendell Holmes has expressed this very charmingly in more modern terms, speaking of his own condition when composing the Chambered Nautilus. 'In writing the poem I was filled with a better feeling, the highest state of mental exaltation and the most crystalline clairvoyance that had ever been granted to me—I mean that lucid vision of one's thought and all forms of expression which will be at once precise and musical, which is the poet's special gift, however large or small in amount or value.' To the base mechanical of the working-day world, this lucid vision, this crystalline clairvoyance and mental exaltation is indeed a madness working in the brain, a state which he cannot understand, a Holy of Holies into which he cannot enter.
When all the circumstances are taken into account, the English Parnassus affords no parallel to the career of Keats—Adonais, as we love to call him—whose birthday, one hundred years ago, we celebrate to-day.
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Born at the sign of the 'Swan and Hoop', Moorgate Pavement, the son of the head ostler, his parentage and the social atmosphere of his early years conspired to produce an ordinary beer-loving, pugnacious cockney; but instead there was fashioned one of the clearest, sweetest, and strongest singers of the century, whose advent sets at naught all laws of heredity, as his development transcends all laws of environment.