Poems by John Keats: Introduction, Page 2|
by Walter Raleigh (1897).
But if this, and more than this, must be said by way of stricture on his immature pieces, it is only that the most beautiful and characteristic part of his work may be more intelligently approached. The poignancy of his sensations served him well in poetry. All the little sights and sounds of a summer meadow-land, the row of sweet peas, "on tip-toe for a flight," the silent flitting of moths, and the wavering of minnows against the stream never had a more enraptured and delicate observer than the author of the descriptive poem that stood first in the volume of 1817. What was to come of this impassioned talent for observation, when it had found control, may be seen in the "Ode to Autumn," written not much more than two years later. The keenness of sensibility that was an ecstasy and a torment to him makes him with the happiness of the song of the bird, until his heart aches, and he swoons into a day-dream, to be carried forthwith, on viewless wings, far from the Hampstead garden into that embalmed darkness. His subserviency to a chance suggestion of sound, which was ponderously ridiculed by the "Quarterly" reviewer, and his habit of fastening on a single word that he might extract from it, to the last drop, its store of emotional virtue, gave us what is perhaps the most wonderful transition in all poetry:
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"Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!"
Lastly, by his dream imagery he succeeded in giving expression to emotions that logic can never handle. The tired peacefulness that rests on the earth with recovered Spring is rendered by a group of subtly harmonious imaginations in the sonnet ending:
"A sleeping infant's breath,
The gradual sand that through an hour-glass runs,—
A woodland rivulet,—a Poet's death."
And surely the feelings aroused in the heart by the monuments of a great and vanished civilization, although they can find no definitive expression, do communicate themselves, by a series of images, in the sonnet describing how the Elgin marbles awaken in the poet's mind
"A most dizzy pain
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old Time—with a billowy main,
A sun, a shadow of a magnitude."
That the power of thought was never dormant in Keats his letters prove. It grew stronger in him and asserted itself more and more from year to year. Early in his poetic career he criticises one of Wordsworth's poems by remarking that "if Wordsworth had thought a little deeper at that moment, he would not have written the poem at all." As his poetic faculty strengthened he came to feel that the exercise of the reasoning powers and the acquisition of knowledge were useful servants to poetry, not redoubtable rivals. "Were I to study Physic," he writes to Reynolds, "or rather Medicine again, I feel it would not make the least difference in my poetry."
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