Studies in Letters and Life: On the Promise of Keats, Page 1|
by George Edward Woodberry (1890).
In the domestic, chatty, and nonsense portions of the letters of Keats, in their chaffing, their abandon, their unregarded laughter (and admirable fooling they are, too), there is a spontaneous and irresponsible gayety, which, being quite natural only to the young heart and mind, charmingly discloses his youthfulness as a prime quality. Of all the famous English poets, he had most of the spirit of April in him. His senses were keen; his temperament was feverish, now jealous and irritable, and straightway humble and indulgent; his imaginary joys and sorrows were spiritual possessions, subjecting him; his humor was scampering, his fancy teeming, his taste erratic, his critical faculty exposed to balking enthusiasms; his opinions of men and affairs were hasty, circumscribed, frequently adopted unreflectingly at second-hand; and, with all these boyish traits, he was extremely self-absorbed. At the centre of his individuality, nevertheless, was the elemental spark, the saving power of genius, the temperance, sanity, and self-reverence of a fine nature gradually coming to the knowledge of its faculties and unriddling the secret of its own moral beauty. Hence Lord Houghton, doing more essential justice to Keats than any of his louder eulogists, describes his works as rather the exercises of his poetical education than the charactery of his original and free power; and Matthew Arnold, even when placing him with Shakespeare, excuses him as a 'prentice hand in the wisest art. Too many of his admirers, seizing upon the eternal, accidental, and temporal in his biography and the fragmentary and parasitical in his poetry, have really wronged Keats more than did the now infamous reviews; they have rescued him from among the cockneys only to confound him with the neo-pagans. In what did the promise of Keats lie? The first step in the inquiry is the recognition of his immaturity,—the acknowledgment that his memorials must be searched for the germ rather than the fruit.
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Sensuous Keats was, as every poet whose inspiration is direct from Heaven must be; unfortunately, the extraordinary beauty and facility of his descriptions of sensation, and his taste for climax and point in his prose have made it easy to quote phrases which seem to show that he was unduly attached to delights of mere sense. To pass by the anecdotes of Haydon, not too scrupulous a truth-teller, here is a characteristic paragraph written to his brother George:—
"This morning I am in a sort of temper, indolent, and supremely careless; I long after a stanza or two of Thomson's Castle of Indolence; my passions are all asleep, from my having slumbered till nearly eleven, and weakened the animal fibre all over me to a delightful sensation about three degrees this side of faintness. If I had teeth of pearl and the breath of lilies, I should call it languor; but as I am I must call it laziness. In this state of effeminacy, the fibres of the brain are relaxed in common with the rest of the body, and to such a happy degree that pleasure has no show of enticement and pain no unbearable frown; neither poetry, nor ambition, nor love have any alertness of countenance; as they pass by me, they seem rather like three figures in a Greek vase, two men and a woman, whom no one but myself could distinguish in their disguisement. This is the only happiness, and is a rare instance of advantage in the body overpowering the mind."
With similar zest he enumerates the pleasures of drinking claret or of eating a peach, or he describes his "East Indian" to his brother's wife: "She kept me awake one night, as a tune of Mozart's might do. I speak of the thing as a pastime and an amusement, than which I can feel none deeper than a conversation with an imperial woman, the very 'yes' and 'no' of whose lips is to me a banquet. . . . As a man of the world, I love the rich talk of a Charmian; as an eternal being, I love the thought of you. I should like her to ruin me, and I should like you to save me."
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