Poems by John Keats: Introduction, Page 4|
by Walter Raleigh (1897).
With the other great English poets who were his contemporaries, Keats had few intimate relations. Wordsworth he regarded with distant reverence; from Shelley, it is said, he held aloof, fearing lest he might be drawn by that magnetic influence out of his natural path. He resented, with just indignation, the criticism that saw in him merely a lieutenant of Leigh Hunt. In truth, his closest kinship is with the Elizabethans. Not since the time of the Renaissance had there been born in England a poet who followed beauty with so ardent a simplicity, or who found in the pagan world so unsophisticated a source of delight. He borrowed much from the Elizabethans, but he resembles them also in native temper. Chapman, one of the chief gods of his idolatry, is generally counted a crabbed writer, but these lines, which are taken from Chapman's continuation of Marlowe's poem, and describe the return of Leander to his home after the visit to Hero, might almost have been written by Keats:
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"Then laid he forth his late-enrichèd arms,
In whose white circle Love writ all her charms
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And as those arms held up in circle met,
He said, 'See, sister, Hero's carcanet!
Which she had rather wear about her neck
Than all the jewels that do Juno deck.'"
The splendid life and jollity of the choral song in the fourth book of "Endymion," the flamboyant mirth of Bacchus and his crew as they dance over the hill like a "moving vintage," is pure Renaissance in manner—though it is fair to note that the song owes much to pictorial inspiration, and that Keats preludes and closes it in his most characteristic fashion, with a plaintive apostrophe to Sorrow. That primitive joy in life which to the men of the Renaissance seemed a thing once more almost within their grasp is to the later poet of the Romantic Revival a memory and a picture, saddening the heart by its inevitable contrast with the desolate reality. Another difference, not wholly unconnected with this, is seen in the curiously diverse manners in which the two ages, the ages of Shakespeare and of Goethe, regarding poetry. To the men of the Renaissance poetry was a kind of prophetic moral utterance. The professed object of Spenser's great poem is to institute a gentleman in the cardinal virtues, while that of Milton's is nothing less than to justify the government of the Universe. Their poetry included in its magnificent scope the whole of philosophy, politics, and morals. In the later age the spirit of poetry might be revived, but it could not hope to recover, in the teeth of newer claims, the whole of its former empire. Under the influence of the philosophy of the eighteenth century it had fallen into its place as one of the fine arts. The effect of this narrowing and defining of the functions of poetry is very apparent in the works of Keats. The "sentences," aphorisms and maxims that abound in Elizabethan verse have few counterparts in his poems. A more self-conscious art directs itself to a more purely æsthetic goal, and the poetry draws nearer in aim and method to the sister arts of music and painting. Hence, in such a poem as "The Eve of St. Agnes" are found new marvels of decorative and descriptive splendour; hence, also, it is perhaps not too rash to say, comes that sense of desertion by the world, of impotence to arrest the impending disaster, which sounds an elegiac note in the midst of the wildest festivity. No Elizabethan could have treated the subject of "La Belle Dame sans Merci" in the purely impressionistic and passive manner of Keats, or have given to it so weird a charm. The sense of beauty is no longer a sense of mastery, but rather a sense of fate. The poet is bound hand and foot and condemned to be a motionless observer while all fair, and wise, and excellent things pass by him to their doom. His delight in beauty becomes to him a fascination and an anguish. He seeks a refuge from the cruelty of life in the calmer world of art, and his thinking faculties concentrate themselves on the conditions of this, the only means of salvation. The sayings by which he is remembered are not of the old defiant kind.
"No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change;
Thy pyramids, built up with newer might,
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight."
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