John Keats: The Apothecary Poet, Page 5|
by Sir William Osler (1908).
The truth is, no event in Keats's life so warmly commends him to us, or shows more clearly the genuine robustness of his mind, than his attitude in this much-discussed episode. In the first place, he had a clear, for so young a man an extraordinarily clear, perception of the limitation of his own powers and the value of his work. The preface to Endymion, one of the most remarkable ever written, contains his own lucid judgement. He felt that his foundations were 'too sandy', that the poem was an immature, feverish attempt in which he had moved, as he says, from the leading-strings to the go-cart. Did any critic ever sketch with firmer hand the mental condition of a young man in transition? 'The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy; but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted; thence proceeds mawkishness, and all the thousand bitters which those men I speak of must necessarily taste in going over the following pages.' It cannot be denied that there are in Endymion, as the Quarterly Review puts it, 'the most incongruous ideas in the most uncouth language,' but the poem has lines of splendid merit, some indeed which have passed into the daily life of the people.
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Naturally the criticism of the Quarterly and of Blackwood rankled deeply in his over-sensitive heart, but after the first pangs he appears to have accepted the castigation in a truly philosophic way. In a letter to his friend Hersey, dated Oct. 9, 1818, he writes, 'Praise or blame has but a momentary effect on the man whose love of beauty in the abstract makes him a severe critic in his own works. My own domestic criticism has given me pain without comparison beyond what Blackwood or the Quarterly could possibly inflict,—and also when I feel I am right, no external praise can give me such a glow as my own solitary reperception and ratification of what is fine. J.S. is perfectly right in regard to the slipshod Endymion. That it is so is no fault of mine. No!—though it may sound a little paradoxical, it is as good as I had power to make it—by myself.' And he adds, 'I will write independently,—I have written independently without judgment. I may write independently, and with judgment hereafter. The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man.' A young man of twenty-three who could write this, whatever else he possessed, had the mens sana, and could not be killed by a dozen reviews.
In June, 1820, appeared Keats's third work, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and other poems, which placed him in the first rank of English writers. I will quote briefly the criticisms of two masters.
'No one else in English poetry save Shakespeare,' says Matthew Arnold, 'has in expression quite the fascinating facility of Keats, his perfection of loveliness. "I think," he said humbly, "I shall be among the English poets after my death." He is; he is with Shakespeare.'
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