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THE LIFE OF KEATS.
There are few poets whose works contain slighter hints of their personal history than those of Keats; yet there are, perhaps, even fewer, whose real lives, or rather the conditions upon which they lived, are more clearly traceable in what they have written. To write the life of a man was formerly understood to mean the cataloguing and placing of circumstances, of those things which stood about the life and were more or less related to it, but were not the life itself. But Biography from day to day holds dates cheaper and facts dearer. A man's life (as far as its outward events are concerned) may be made for him, as his clothes are by the tailor, of this cut or that, of finer or coarser material, but the gait and gesture show through, and give to trappings, in themselves characterless, an individuality that belongs to the man himself. It is those essential facts which underlie the life and make the individual man, that are of importance, and it is the cropping out of these upon the surface, that gives us indications by which to judge of the true nature hidden below. Every man has his block given him, and the figure he cuts will depend very much upon the shape of that — upon the knots and twists which existed in it from the beginning. We were designed in the cradle, perhaps earlier, and it is in finding out this design, and shaping ourselves to it, that our years are spent wisely. It is
the vain endeavor to make ourselves what we are not that has strewn history with so many broken purposes and lives left in the rough.
Keats hardly lived long enough to develop a well-outlined character, for that results commonly from the resistance made by temperament to the many influences by which the world, as it may happen then to be, endeavors to mould every one in its own image. What his temperament was we can see clearly, and also that it subordinated itself more and more to the discipline of art.
JOHN KEATS, the second of four children, like Chaucer, was a Londoner, but, unlike Chancer, he was certainly not of gentle blood. Mr. Monckton Milnes, who seems to have had a kindly, wish to create him gentleman by brevet, says that he was “born in the upper ranks of the middle class.” This shows a commendable tenderness for the nerves of English society, and reminds one of Northcote's story of the violin-player who, wishing to compliment his pupil, George III., divided all fiddlers into three classes, those who could not play at all, those who played very badly, and those who played very well, assuring his majesty that he had made such commendable progress as to have already reached the second rank. The American public will perhaps not be disturbed by knowing that the father of Keats (as Mr. Milnes had told us in an earlier biography) “was employed in the establishment of Mr. Jennings, the proprietor of large livery-stables on the Pavement in Moorfields, nearly opposite the entrance into Finsbury Circus.” So that, after all, it was not so bad; for, first, Mr. Jennings was a proprietor ; second, he was the proprietor of an establishment; third, he was the proprietor of a large establishment; and, fourth, this large establishment was nearly opposite Fins
bury Circus, a name which vaguely dilates the imagination with all sorts of conjectured grandeurs. It is true, Leigh Hunt asserts that Keats “ was a little too sensitive on the score of his origin,”* but we can find no trace of such a feeling either in his poetry, or in such of his letters as have been printed. We suspect the fact to have been that he resented with becoming pride the vulgar Blackwood and Quarterly standard which measured genius by genealogies. It is enough that his poetical pedigree is of the best, tracing through Spenser to Chaucer, and that Pegasus does not stand at livery even in the largest establishments in Moorfields.
As well as we can make out, then, the father of Keats was a groom in the service of Mr. Jennings, and married the daughter of his master. Thus, on the mother's side, at least, we find a grandfather; on the father's there is no hint of such an ancestor, and we must charitably take him for granted. It is of more importance that the elder Keats was a man of sense and energy, and that his wife was a lively and intelligent woman, who hastened the birth of the poet by her passionate devotion to amusement, bringing him into the world, a seven months' child, on the 29th October, 1795, instead of the 29th December, as would have been conventionally proper. Mr. Milnes describes her as “tall, with a large oval face, and a somewhat saturnine demeanor." + This last circumstance does not agree very well with what he had just before told us of her liveliness; but he consoles us by adding that ” she succeeded, however, in inspiring her children with the profoundest affection." This was particularly true of John, who once, when between four and five years old, mounted guard at her chamber-door with an old sword, when she was ill, and the doctor had ordered her not to be disturbed. *
* Hunt's Autobiography, (American edition,) vol. ii. p. 36. † Milnes's Life of Keats, (American edition,) p. 15.
In 1804, Keats being in his ninth year, his father was killed by a fall from his horse. His mother seems to have been ambitious for her children, and there was some talk of sending John to Harrow. Fortunately this plan was thought too expensive, and he was sent instead to the School of Mr. Clarke at Enfield with his brothers. A maternal uncle, who had distinguished himself by his courage under Duncan at Camperdown, was the hero of his nephews, and they went to school resolved to maintain the family reputation for courage. John was always fighting, and was chiefly noted among his school-fellows as a strange compound of pluck and sensibility. He attacked an usher who had boxed his brother's ears, and when his mother died, in 1810, was moodily inconsolable, (in spite, it seems, of her “saturnine demeanor,”) hiding himself for several days in a nook under the master's desk, and refusing all comfort from teacher or friend.
He was popular at school, as boys of spirit always are, and impressed his companions with a sense of his power. They thought he would one day be a famous soldier. This may have been owing to the stories he told them of the heroic uncle, whose deeds, we may be sure, were properly famoused by the boy Homer, and whom they probably took for an admiral at the least, as it would have been well for Keats's literary prosperity if he had been. At any rate, they thought John would be a great man; which is the main thing, for the public opinion of the playground is truer and more discerning than that of the world; and if you tell us
Haydon tells the story differently, but we think Mr. Milnes's version the best,