« PreviousContinue »
Keats in those words written to Bailey. It is more than mere words; so justly thought and so discreetly urged as it is, it rises to the height of a virtuous act. It is proof of character.
The same thing may be said of some words written to his friend Charles Brown, whose kindness, willingly exerted whenever Keats chose to avail himself of it, seemed to free him from any pressing necessity of earning his own living. Keats felt that he must not allow this state of things to continue. He determined to set himself to 'fag on as others do' at periodical literature, rather than to endanger his independence and his self-respect; and he writes to Brown :
I had got into a habit of mind of looking towards you as a help in all difficulties. This very habit would be the parent of idleness and difficulties. You will see it is a duty I owe to myself to break the neck of it. I do nothing for my subsistence-make no exertion. At the end of another year you shall applaud me, not for verses, but for conduct.
He had not, alas, another year of health before him when he announced that wholesome resolve; it then wanted but six months of the day of his fatal attack. But in the brief time allowed to him he did what he could to keep his word.
What character, again, what strength and clearness of judgment, in his criticism of his own productions, of the public, and of the literary circles'! His words after the severe reviews of
Endymion have often been quoted; they cannot be quoted too often :
Praise or blame has but a momentary effect on the man whose love of beauty in the abstract makes him a severe critic on his own works. My own criticism has given me pain without comparison beyond what Blackwood or the Quarterly could possibly inflict; and also, when I feel I am right, no external praise can give me such a glow as my own solitary reperception and ratification of what is fine. J. S. is perfectly right in regard to the 'slip-shod Endymion.' That it is so is no fault of mine. No! though it may sound a little paradoxical, it is as good as I had power to make it by myself.
And again, as if he had foreseen certain of his admirers gushing over him, and was resolved to disengage his responsibility :
I have done nothing, except for the amusement of a few people who refine upon their feelings till anything in the ununderstandable way will go down with them. I have no cause to complain, because I am certain anything really fine will in these days be felt. I have no doubt that if I had written Othello I should have been cheered. I shall go on with patience.
Young poets almost inevitably overrate what they call the might of poesy,' and its power over the world which now is. Keats is not a dupe on this matter any more than he is a dupe about the merit of his own performances :
I have no trust whatever in poetry. I don't wonder at it; the marvel is to me how people read so much of it.
His attitude towards the public is that of a strong man, not of a weakling avid of praise, and made to be snuff'd out by an article
I shall ever consider the public as debtors to me for verses, not myself to them for admiration, which I can do without.
And again, in a passage where one may perhaps find fault with the capital letters, but surely with nothing else :
I have not the slightest feel of humility towards the public or to anything in existence but the Eternal Being, the Principle of Beauty, and the Memory of great Men. . . . I would be subdued before my friends, and thank them for subduing me; but among multitudes of men I have no feel of stooping; I hate the idea of humility to them. I never wrote one single line of poetry with the least shadow of thought about their opinion. Forgive me for vexing you, but it eases me to tell you: I could not live without the love of my friends; I would jump down Etna for any great public good -but I hate a mawkish popularity. I cannot be subdued before them. My glory would be to daunt and dazzle the thousand jabberers about pictures and books.
Against these artistic and literary 'jabberers,' amongst whom Byron fancied Keats, probably, to be always living, flattering them and flattered by them, he has yet another outburst :
Just so much as I am humbled by the genius above my grasp, am I exalted and look with hate and contempt upon the literary world. Who could wish to be among the commonplace crowd of the little famous, who are each individually lost in a throng made up of themselves?
And he loves Fanny Brawne the more, he tells her, because he believes that she has liked him for his own sake and for nothing else. 'I have met with women who I really think would like to be married to a Poem and to be given away by a Novel.'
There is a tone of too much bitterness and defiance in all this, a tone which he with great propriety subdued and corrected when he wrote his beautiful preface to Endymion. But the thing to be seized is, that Keats had flint and iron in him, that he had character; that he was, as his brother George says, 'as much like the Holy Ghost as Johnny Keats, -as that imagined sensuous weakling, the delight of the literary circles of Hampstead.
It is a pity that Byron, who so misconceived Keats, should never have known how shrewdly Keats, on the other hand, had characterised him as 'a fine thing' in the sphere of 'the worldly, theatrical, and pantomimical.' But indeed nothing is more remarkable in Keats than his clear-sightedness, his lucidity; and lucidity is in itself akin to character and to high and severe work. In spite, therefore, of his overpowering feeling for beauty, in spite of his sensuousness, in spite of his facility, in spite of his gift of expression, Keats could say resolutely :
I know nothing, I have read nothing; and I mean to follow Solomon's directions: 'Get learning, get understanding.' There is but one way for me. The road lies through application, study, and thought. I will pursue it.
And of Milton, instead of resting in Milton's incomparable phrases, Keats could say, although indeed all the while looking upon fine phrases,' as he himself tells us, 'like a lover'
Milton had an exquisite passion for what is properly, in
the sense of ease and pleasure, poetical luxury; and with that, it appears to me, he would fain have been content, if he could, so doing, preserve his self-respect and feeling of duty performed; but there was working in him, as it were, that same sort of thing which operates in the great world to the end of a prophecy's being accomplished. Therefore he devoted himself rather to the ardours than the pleasures of song, solacing himself at intervals with cups of old wine.
In his own poetry, too, Keats felt that place must be found for the ardours rather than the pleasures of song,' although he was aware that he was not yet ripe for it
But my flag is not unfurl'd
Even in his pursuit of the pleasures of song,' however, there is that stamp of high work which is akin to character, which is character passing into intellectual production. The best sort of poetry-that,' he truly says, 'is all I care for, all I live for.' It is curious to observe how this severe addiction of his to the best sort of poetry affects him with a certain coldness, as if the addiction had been to mathematics, towards those prime objects of a sensuous and passionate poet's regard, love and women. He speaks of 'the opinion I have formed of the generality of women, who appear to me as children to whom I would rather give a sugar-plum than my time.' He confesses a tendency to class women in my books with roses and sweetmeats-they never see themselves dominant'; and he can understand