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Studies in Letters and Life: On the Promise of Keats, Page 4
by George Edward Woodberry (1890).

In this opinion he did retire to one place or another,—the Isle of Wight, or Winchester, or Teignmouth, and there isolating himself dreamed out his poems. He lived in a sort of ecstasy during no small portion of these solitary hours, when he could call the roaring of the wind his wife, the stars through the window panes his children, and rest contented in the abstract idea of beauty in all things. This absorption in the idea of beauty which determined the formulation of his creed in the oft-quoted lines,—

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know;"

which also led him into that much misunderstood exclamation, "O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts;" this intoxication, as it were, with the loveliness of earth, was in his belief a true Pythian inspiration, the medium of the divine revelation. The world takes such expressions as extravaganzas, or as mystical philosophy; but to Keats they were as commonplace as the proverbs of the hearth; he meant them as entirely lucid expressions of plain sense. This point in the criticism of Keats has been too little insisted on and brought to notice. He put his faith in the suggestions of the spirit; he relied on the intimations of what is veiled from full sight; he had little patience with minds that cannot be content with half-knowledge, or refuse to credit convictions because they cannot be expressed in detail, with logical support, and felt with the hand of sense all round, if one may employ the phrase; in other words, he believed in the imagination as a truth-finding faculty, not less valid because it presents truth in a wholly different way from the purely logical intellect. This was the deepest and most rooted persuasion of his mind from the time when he first comes under our observation. To bring together a few expressions of it is the only right way of setting forth his creed in this matter. The following extracts are from various parts of his letters, from the earliest to the later ones:—

"At once it struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the penetralium of Mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration."

"Many a man can travel to the very bourne of heaven, and yet want confidence to put down his half-seeing."

"I never feel quite certain of any truth but from a clear perception of its beauty, and I find myself very young-minded, even in that perceptive power."

"The whole thing must, I think, have appeared to you, who are a consecutive man, as a thing almost of mere words. But I assure you that, when I wrote it, it was a regular stepping of the imagination toward a truth."

"What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth, whether it existed before or not. . . . The imagination may be compared to Adam's dream—he awoke and found it truth. I am more zealous in this affair because I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning, and yet [so] it must be. . . . However it may be, O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts! It is a 'vision in the form of youth,' a shadow of reality to come."

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