Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

MACMILLAN'S MAGAZINE.

NOVEMBER, 1860.

THE LIFE AND POETRY OF KEATS.

BY THE EDITOR.

KEATS was born in Moorfields, London, At school, Keats, according to the recolin October, 1795, the son of a livery- lections of Mr. Clarke and others of his stable keeper of some wealth, who had schoolfellows, was at first a perfect little attained that position by marrying his terrier for resoluteness and pugnacity, master's daughter and so succeeding him but very placable and frolicsome, very in the business. There were five chil- much liked, and, though not particularly dren, four sons and a daughter, of whom studious, very quick at learning. There John was the third. The father, who is would seem to have been more of pleadescribed as an active, energetic little sant sociability between the family of the man of much natural talent, was killed master and the scholars in the school at by a fall from a horse at the age of Enfield, and more of literary talk at thirty-six, when Keats was in his ninth bye-hours, than was then common at year; and the care of the children de- private English schools. At all events, volved upon the mother, a tall, large- when, by the death of his mother, of featured woman, of considerable force of lingering consumption, in 1810, the character. There was also a maternal guardianship of Keats, his two surviving uncle, a very tall, strong, and courageous brothers, and his only sister, devolved man, who had been in the navy, had on a Mr. Abbey, a London merchant served under Duncan at Camperdown, who had known the family, and when and had done extraordinary feats in the Mr. Abbey thought it best to take two way of fighting. Partly in emulation of of the boys from school and apprentice this uncle, partly from constitutional them to professions, it was felt by Keats inclination, the boys were always fight to be a very happy arrangement that he ing too—in the house, about the stables, was apprenticed to a surgeon-apothecary or out in the adjacent streets, with each at Edmonton, so near to Enfield, that other, or with anybody else. John, he could still go over when he liked to though the shortest for his years, and see the Clarkes. He was then fifteen the most like his father, was the most years of age. The share of the family pugnacious of the lot; but with his property held for him by his guardian pugnacity he combined, it is said, a till he came of age, was about 2,0001. ; remarkable sensibility, and a great love and his apprenticeship was to last five of fun. This character he took with years. him to a boarding-school at Enfield, From Edmonton, Keats was continear London, kept by the father of Mr. nually walking over to Enfield to see Charles Cowden Clarke, then also a boy, his young friend, Cowden Clarke, and not much older than Keats, receiving to borrow books. It was some time in his education under his father's roof. 1812 that he borrowed Spenser's “Faery

Queene.” The effect was immediate and in the minor poems of Milton, Shakeextraordinary. “He ramped ” says Mr. speare and Chaucer, and in Spenser Clarke, “through the scenes of the throughout, and that he rarely seemed romance;" he would talk of nothing to dwell with the same enthusiasm on but Spenser; he had whole passages by passages of fervid feeling, of severe heart, which he would repeat ; and he reference to life, or of powerful human would dwell with an ecstacy of delight interest. At this time, in fact, his feelon fine particular phrases, such as that ing for poetry was very much that of of the sea-shouldering whale." His an artist in language, observing effects first known poetical composition (he was which particularly delighted him, and then seventeen), was a piece expressly studying them with a professional admientitled “In Imitation of Spenser." ration of the exquisite. He brooded “Now Morning from her orient chamber came,

over fine phrases like a lover; and often, And her first footsteps touch'd a verdant hill, when he met a quaint or delicious word Crowning its lawny crest with amber flame, in the course of his reading, he would Silvering the untainted gushes of its rill ; take pains to make it his own by using Which, pure from mossy beds," &c.

it, as speedily as possible, in some poem From that moment it seemed as if he was writing. Ah ! those days of Keats lived only to read poetry and to genial, enjoying youth, when, over the write it. From Spenser he went to fire, with a book in one's hand, one gets Chaucer, from Chaucer to Milton, and fine passages by heart, and, in walks so on and on, with ever-widening range,

with one

or two choice companions, through all our sweeter and greater there is an opening of the common poets. He luxuriated in them by him- stock, and hours and miles are whiled self; he talked about them, and read away with tit-bits of recent reading from parts of them aloud to his friends ; he a round of favourite poets! These are became a critic of their thoughts, their the days when books are books; and it words, their rhymes, their cadences. is a fact to be remembered, as regards His chief partner in these tastes was literature, that one half of the human Mr. Cowden Clarke, with whom he race is always under the age of twentywould take walks, or sit up whole evenings, discoursing of poets and poetry ; Before Keats's apprenticeship was and he acknowledges, in one of his over, it was pretty clear to himself and metrical epistles, the influence which his friends that he would not persevere in Mr. Clarke had in forming his literary becoming a surgeon. In the year 1816, likings. Above all, it was Mr. Clarke when he came from Edmonton to Lonthat first introduced him to any know- don, at the age of twenty, he did indeed ledge of ancient Greek poetry. This enter himself as a student at the hoswas effected by lending him Chap- pitals; but he very soon gave up attendman's Homer, his first acquaintance with ing them, and found more agreeable which, and its effects on him, are cele- employment in the society of Leigh brated in one of the finest and best- Hunt, Shelley, Godwin, Dilke, Ollier, known of his sonnets. Thenceforward the painter Haydon, Hazlitt, Charles Greek poetry, so far as it was accessible Armitage Brown, and others whose to him in translation, had peculiar fasci- names are less remembered. In this nations for him. By similar means he society of artists and men of lettersbecame fondly familiar with some of the forming, so far as the literary ingredient softer Italian poets, and with the stories was concerned, the so-called “Cockney of Boccaccio. It was noted by one of School," as distinct from the “ Lakists his friends that his preferences at this of the North of England, and from the time, whether in English or in other Edinburgh men who gave both of them poetry, were still for passages of sweet, their names -Keats at once took a prosensuous description, or of sensuous- minent place, less on account of what ideal beauty, such as are to be found he had actually done, than on the pro

one.

mise 'of what he was to be. On first hollow, seen in the starlight, one could settling in London, he had taken lodg- fancy that there had been a murder; ings in the Poultry, in the heart of the nay, tradition points to spots where foul city ; but, as soon as he had aban crimes have been committed, or where, doned the idea of following the medical in the dead of night, forgers, who had profession, he removed to Hampstead - walked, with discovery on their track, which, as the provincial reader ought along dark intervening roads, from the to know, is a suburb of London, as hell of lamp-lit London, had lain down you approach it from the north.

and poisoned themselves. In the day, London, with all the evils resulting however, and especially on a bright, from its vastness, has suburbs as rich summer day, the scene is open, healthy, and beautiful, after the English style and cheerful. On the one side, is a view of scenery, as any 'in the world ; and across a green valley, called “The Vale even now, despite the encroachments of of Health,” to the opposite heights of the ever-encroaching brick and mortar Highgate; on the other, the eye traverses on the surrounding country, the neigh a flat expanse of fields and meadows, bourhood of Hampstead and Highgate, stretching for many miles northward, near London, is one in which the lover and looking, in its rich level variety, like of natural beauty and the solitary might & miniature representation of all Engwell delight. The ground is much the land. And then the lanes all about and highest round London ; there are real around, leading away from the Heath, heights and hollows, so that the omni- deep and steep, between high banks and buses coming from town have to put on along the old church and churchyard, additional horses; you ascend steep and past little ponds and gardens, and roads, lying in part through villages of often ending in footpaths through fields quaint shops, and old, high-gabled brick where one has to get over stiles ! houses, still distinct from the great city, All this of Hampstead and its vicinity though about to be devoured by it, in part even now; but, forty years ago, it was through straggling lines of villas, with still better. Why, at that time, London gardens and grassy parks round them, itself was a different city. There was and here and there an old inn; and, from less smoke ; there were no steamers on the highest eminences, when the view is the river; and, from the overspanning clear, you can see London left behind, a bridges, the water could be seen running mass of purplish mist, with domes and clear beneath, with the consciousness of steeples visible through it. Where the fish in it. Then, too, the conveyance villages end, you are really in the between London and such suburbs as country. There is the Heath, on the Hampstead and Highgate was not by Hampstead side-an extensive tract of omnibuses passing every five minutes, knolls and little glens, covered here and but by the old stage-coaches, with their there with furze, all abloom with yellow guards and horns, coming and going in the summer, when the larks may be leisurely twice or thrice a day. In those heard singing over it ; threaded here days, therefore, Hampstead and Highand there by paths with seats in them, gate were still capable of having an or broken by clumps of trees, and blue individuality of their own, and of having rusty-nailed palings, which enclose old associations fixed upon them by the occufashioned family houses and shrubberies, pations of their residents, even though where the coachman in livery may be these were in London daily, and were, seen talking lazily to the gardener ; but by their general designation, properly containing also sequestered spots where enough Londoners. Part of their celeone might wander alone for hours, or lie brity now, indeed, arises from associaconcealed amid the sheltering furze. At tions thus formed. Old Leigh Hunt, night, Hampstead Heath would be as visiting these scenes not long before his ghastly a place to wander in as an death, would point out the exact wooden uneasy spirit could desire. In every seat on the Heath where he and Keats,

or where he and Shelley, sat when such touched the attention of the public, and such a poem was recited, or the though it served to show his power to exact spot in a path through the fields his immediate friends. He was then twowhere Coleridge took leave of him and and-twenty years of age; and his appearCharles Lamb, to dawdle back to his ance was rather singular. Coleridge, home at Highgate, and where Lamb, who once shook hands with him, when while the departing skirts of the sage he met him with Hunt in a lane near were still visible, stuttered out some Highgate, describes him as "a loose, pun about his personal appearance and slack, not well-dressed youth.” The his last metaphysical monologue. At descriptions of Hunt and others are the particular time of which we are more particular. He was considerably now speaking, Leigh Hunt was living under middle height—his lower limbs at Hampstead, where also lived Mr. being small, in comparison with the Armitage Brown, a retired merchant of upper, to a degree that marred his whole literary tastes, and others of whom it proportion. His shoulders were very is not necessary to take note ; and there, broad for his size; his face was strongly in the evenings, at the houses of such cut, yet delicately mobile, expressing men, artists and others would drop in; an unusual combination of determinaand then, O ye future critics of Black tion with sensibility—its worst feature wood and the Quarterly, what wit there being the mouth, which had a projecting would be, what music, what portfolios upper lip, and altogether a savage pugiof sketches and engravings, what white listic look. Nor did the look belie him. casts from the antique, what talk about He had great personal courage, and once poetry and literature ! From that time, took the trouble to thrash a butcher for with scarcely an exception, Hampstead some insolent conduct in a regular was the London home of Keats—first stand-up fight. His hair was brown, as a guest of Leigh Hunt, or a lodger and his eyes large, and of a dark, glowing near to him; and afterwards, and more blue. "His head," says Leigh Hunt, permanently, as a guest of Mr. Armitage “ was a puzzle for the phrenologists, Brown. Indeed, just as Wordsworth and “ being remarkably small in the skull his associates were supposed to have a singularity which he had in common constituted themselves into a school by “ with Byron and Shelley, whose hats I retiring to Cumberland and Westinore “ could not get on." His voice, unlike land, in order to be in closer relations Shelley's, was deep and grave. His entire to nature, as exhibited in that district expression was that of eager power; and, of lake and mountain, so it might have in contradiction of what was observed of been suggested maliciously of Keats, him at an earlier period, he was now Hunt, and the rest of their set, that easily, though still apparently against the difference between them and this his will, betrayed into signs of veheelder school was, that what they called ment emotion. “At the recital of a nature was nature as seen from Hamp “noble action, or a beautiful thought,” stead Heath. As the one set of poets says Mr. Hunt, “ his eyes would suffuse had received from their Edinburgh with tears, and his mouth trembled.” critics the name of “the Lakists," so, On hearing of some unmanly conduct, to make the joke correspond, the others, he once burst out, Why is there instead of being called “the Cockney “ not a human dust-hole into which to poets,” might have been named the “ tumble such fellows ?Evidently Hampstead Heath-ens.

ill-health, as well as imaginative temKeats signalized his accession to this perament, had to do with this inability peculiar literary group by publishing to restrain tears and other signs of in 1817, a little volume of poems, con agitated feeling. His mother had died taining some of his sonnets and other of consumption at a comparatively early pieces now appended to his longer and age ; his younger brother, Tom, was later compositions. The volume scarcely already far gone in the same fatal

malady; and, though there was as yet Deep on thy soul, before its powers no distinct symptom of consumption in

Are yet by vice enslaved,

Be thy Creator's glorious name Keats, he was often flushed and fever

And character engraved." ish, and had his secret fears. He had many hours of sprightliness, however, How remorselessly Wordsworth would when these fears would vanish, and he have torn this passage to pieces—as, would be full of frolic and life. In indeed, he did a similar paraphrase of allusion to this occasional excess of fun Scripture by Dr. Johnson ! “Life's gay and animal spirits, his friends punned morn !” “sprightly youth !” he would upon his name, shortening it from have said, - meaningless expressions, “ John Keats" into “Junkets." Still, used because it is considered poetical to amid all-in his times of despondency, stick an adjective before every noun, as well as in his seasons of hope and "gay" and "sprightly” are adjecPoetry was his ceaseless thought, and tives conveniently in stock! Then, to be a Poet his one ambition.

“sprightly youth with vital ardour

glows”—what is this but slip-shod ; “O for ten years, that I may overwhelm and, besides, why tug the verb to the Myself in Poesy! So I may do the deed

end of the phrase, and say " with That my own soul has to itself decreed!"

vital ardour glows" instead of “glows

with vital ardour," as you would do in Of what kind this intended deed was natural speech ? O, of course, the we have also some indication. Like all rhyme! Yes; but who asked you to the fresher young poets of his time, rhyme at all, in the first place ? and, in Keats had imbibed, partly from con- the next place, if you were bent on stitutional predisposition, partly from rhyming, and found "ardour” would conscious reasoning, that theory of Poetry not suit at the end of your precious which, for more than twenty years, line, that was your difficulty, not mine! Wordsworth had been disseminating by What are you a poet for but to overprecept and by example through the

come such difficulties, or what right literary mind of England. This theory, have you to extract the rhythms and in its historical aspect, I will venture to rhymes that you want in your craft as call Pre-Drydenism. Its doctrine, his- a versifier by the mere torture of honest torically, was that the age of true Eng

prose? And then, worse and worse, lish Poetry was the period anterior to " Youth,” already “glowing” with this Dryden—the period of Chaucer, Spenser, “vital ardour," also, it seems, “shines,” Shakespeare, Fletcher

, and Milton; and and (marvellous metaphor !) shines "with that, with a few exceptions, the subse- charms”—which "charms” (metaphor quent period, from Dryden inclusively still more helpless !) are “the fairest down to the time of Wordsworth's own

charms disclosed by beauty !” And so appearance as a poet, had been a prosaic

on he would have gone, pointing out interregnum, during which what passed the flaws of meaning and of expression for poetry was either an inflated style in the next stanza in the same stern of diction which custom had rendered

Pass, he would have said at pleasing, or, at best, shrewd sense and last, from this poor jingle of words to wit, or miscellaneous cogitation more or

the simple and beautiful text of which less weighty, put into metre.

it is offered as a paraphrase : “RememTake an example. Here are two

“ ber now thy Creator in the days of stanzas from a well-known paraphrase

“thy youth, while the evil days come of Scripture, still sung in churches over

not, nor the years draw nigh, when a large part of the kingdom.

“ thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in

“ them." The defects he would have “ In life's gay morn, when sprightly youth

continued, seen on a small scale in the With vital ardour glows, And shines in all the fairest charms

foregoing metrical version of this pas

manner.

« ZurückWeiter »