Studies in Letters and Life: On the Promise of Keats, Page 6|
by George Edward Woodberry (1890).
It has been suggested in some quarters that, notwithstanding his early death, he would probably have done no better work, if indeed he even maintained himself at the height he had reached. In support of this it is urged that Wordsworth best poetry was written in youth, and that Coleridge's powers were employed on really excellent verse only for two years. These letters make it folly to entertain such a belief; they (and the works too) exhibit not only an increase of intellectual, but also of artistic power. No criticism of his poetry is intended here; but, in connection with this point, it may be remarked that his principal defect is in style, as is shown by the necessity he continually felt of studying literary models, which nevertheless affected his productions hardly at all, except in linguistic handling,—in the choice and flow of words, after Spenser, the structure of sentences, after Milton, and later (in Lamia), after Dryden, and in a movement and kind of verbal esprit, after Ariosto. This restless change from one master to another, as well as some few critical remarks, indicates a power to form a distinctive style of his own. Again, the marked pictorial character of his poetry—the quality it has to impress one like a cartoon or a bas-relief ("the brede of marble men and maidens"), the grace of form and attitude in the figures of his poetic vision—was clearly recognized by him to be in excess in his compositions. Originally, this was due, in a high degree, to the accident of his friendship with Haydon; the portfolios of the masters helped his imagination in definiteness, in refinement, and especially in power of grouping. As the mind became more to him, and the eye less, he was dissatisfied with this trait of his works. He condemned even the most perfect composition of this kind in English: "I wish to diffuse the coloring of St. Agnes' Eve throughout a poem in which character and sentiment would be the figures to such drapery." One who could speak of such a poem as "drapery" was far from the conclusion of his artistic education. Lastly, he was from the beginning ambitious of writing dramas. Otho and King Stephen are by no means unmistakable prophecies of success, had he continued in this hope. The effort, however, proves an interest in humanity of a different order from that shown in the mythological or lyrical pieces, and makes evident how far the naturalism of his published poetry was from expressing the fullness of his mind. These three things—the incipiency of his style, the acknowledged insufficiency of picturesque art in creating the best poetry, and the ardent desire to deal with human life directly, and on the large scale, in the drama—are enough to convince us that Keats was truly a Chatterton, only less unfortunate,—"born for the future, to the future lost;" one who, though he wears, Adonis-like, the immortal youth that lies in the gift of early death, would have been even dearer to the world, had his name lost in pathos and gained in honor, as it assuredly would have done if his grass-grown grave wore the wheaten garland of England instead of the Roman daises.
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