Studies in Letters and Life: On the Promise of Keats, Page 5|
by George Edward Woodberry (1890).
A shadow of reality to come! What a light that sentence throws on the aspiration for sensations rather than thoughts, for beauty rather than logic, for the sight rather than the inference, for the direct rather than the mediate perception of the divine! So, at least, it is plain, Keats understood himself; and whether one counts his faith a vague self-deception, meaningless except to a mystic, or has found the most precious truth borne in upon his heart only by this selfsame way, the recognition of the poet's philosophy not merely lifts Keats out of and above the sphere of the purely sensuous, but reveals at once the spiritual substance which underlies his poetry, and which gives it vitality for all time. To other men beauty has been a passion, but to him it was a faith; it was the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen,—a shadow of the reality to come. It was not, as with other poets, in the beauty of nature, the beauty of virtue, the beauty of a woman's face, singly that he found his way to the supra-sensible; he says in his most solemn words, "I have loved the principle of beauty in all things." Dying he said it proudly, as one who had kept the faith that was given him; and since he chose that declaration as the summary of his accomplishment, it needs to be born in mind, with all its large and many-sided meaning, by those who would pluck out the heart of his mystery.
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But although to Keats the worship of beauty in all things was the essence of his life, and the delight that sprang from it the essence of his joy, he did not find in these the whole of life. At first he had been satisfied if the melancholy fit fell on him, "sudden from heaven, like a weeping cloud,"—eager to let the passion have its way with him, until it wreaked itself upon expression; but he felt this overmastering of his own will an injury, not merely exhausting but wasteful.
"Some think I have lost that poetic ardor and fire 't is said I once had;—the fact is, perhaps I have; but, instead of that, I hope I shall substitute a more thoughtful and quiet power. I am more frequently, now, contented to read and think, but now and then haunted with ambitious thoughts, . . . scarcely content to write the best verses for the fever they leave behind. I want to compose without this fever. I hope I one day shall."
Similarly, he wishes to know more, and is determined to "get learning, get understanding," if only that he may keep his balance in the "high sensations" that draw him into their whirl.
"Although I take poetry to be the chief, there is something else wanting to one who passes his time among books and thoughts on books. . . . I find earlier days are gone by—I find I can have no enjoyment in the world but continual drinking of knowledge. I find there is no worthy pursuit but the idea of doing some good to the world. . . . There is but one way for me. The road lies through application, study, and thought. I will pursue it; and, for that end, purpose retiring for some years.
The years that should have perfected his powers were denied to him; his account was made up. In these broken plans, however; in this constant expansion of his view and faithful laying of his experience to heart; in the wisdom of his interpretation of what came within his scope; in a word, in his teachableness as well as in his steadier enthusiasm, his uncloyed sensibility, his finer spirituality, as the promise of Keats seems brighter, so his worth seems greater. These letters show that more had passed into his character than was ever reproduced in his poems. We come back to Lord Houghton's decision. Fine as the work of Keats is, his genius was, nevertheless,
"The bloom, whose petals, nipt before they blow,
Died on the promise of the fruit."
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