Poems by John Keats: Introduction, Page 1|
by Walter Raleigh (1897).
"THREE small volumes of verse, some earnest friendships, one passion, and a premature death,"—these, according to his first biographer, make up the whole story of John Keats. And of these the volumes of verse alone need concern us. To his friendships, it is true, we owe, besides some occasional poems, the most illuminative of the letters, which, better than the poems, bring us acquainted with the gravity and nobility of his character and the depth of his critical insight: to his one passion we owe nothing—if it be not his premature death. Through all the prolonged struggle of sense and thought and agonizing passion, which was the life of Keats, there runs one dominant strain of devotion to his chosen art. Few, even among great poets, have set before themselves so clear an aim or pursued it with a more courageous purpose. It is easy therefore to turn from that oft-narrated tragic story of pain and unsatisfied passion to display his life as a swift and triumphant progress in the art of poetry. Of his biography, thus conceived, the three volumes are the landmarks—the "Poems," published in 1817. His remarks on the nature of poetic genius show the same stress laid on the receptive power. "A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no identity; he is continually in for, and filling some other body. The sun, the moon, the sea, and the men and women who are creatures of impulse, are poetical, and have about them an unchangeable attribute; the poet has none, no identity. He is certainly the most unpoetical of any of God's creatures." For men of action, for the "fine doing" of this world, as distinguished from the fine writing, he always expresses an admiration which is genuine and enthusiastic enough, but it is offered at an alien shrine. The true analogy for poetry was to be found, he felt, elsewhere. Yet one sort of activity there is which may be held to be a part of thought. With regard to this Keats took up a somewhat dubious attitude. He felt the need and the utility of strenuous intellectual exercise, and yet he felt also that this was not poetry, and might very easily lead away from poetry. "I have been hovering for some time," he writes, in desponding mood, just after the completion of "Endymion," "between an exquisite sense of the luxurious, and a love for philosophy; were I calculated for the former I should be glad. But as I am not, I shall turn all my soul to the latter." There can be no doubt which of these two several ways was, in the view of Keats, the way of poetry. No better phrase than the first could be hit upon to designate the merit that might have been noticed by the critics in his early poems. "An exquisite sense of the luxurious," not yet taking shape in full perception or final expression, but vital, sincere, and full of promise, awaiting only the touch of thought to chasten and constrain it to finer issues—this true poetic quality is to be found in the first lispings of his muse.
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The blemishes and excesses of his early work, which have been, from first to last, most laboriously handled by his critics, are generally attributable to this revelry of delight in the life of the senses. Amid the new-found pleasures of the world around him, and the glories of the ancient world of romance, his attitude is that of a lotos-eater. "Luxuries, bright, milky, soft, and rosy" fill his imagination and crowd his verse until they become loathsome by their own deliciousness. He puts on imagination the work of sense; and attempts to recapture, by means of words, evanescent sensations of taste and touch. Words like "tender," "balmy," "swooning," "delicious," all expressions reminiscent of gentle, pleasurable experiences, are too frequent in his poems. An appeal to the senses is too often made the sole standard of reference. There is a tendency in his books, noted by himself, and since treated in graver fashion by Mr. Robert Bridges, "to class women with roses and sweetmeats—they never see themselves dominant." To the same cause must be attributed the sequence of his ideas, which usually, in the early poems, refuse the control of the active powers of will and thought. Ideas and fancies follow one another, like those of a dreamer, in the natural disorder proper to reverie, and the poet, foregoing command, abandons himself to the delight of watching the bright procession. In the "Quarterly Review" for April, 1818, the writer of the notorious article on "Endymion" accuses Keats, with justice, of allowing his rhymes to suggest to him the development of his theme. It is also true that his ideas themselves are often associated by no train of imagination or thought, but simply by a certain vague affinity in their pleasure-giving qualities. More than one passage of these earlier poems contains acknowledgment of the debt he owed to sleep, and he sometimes does too little waking work upon that "embroidery of dim dreams" wherewith sleep had supplied him.
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