« PreviousContinue »
Keats was a born poet of the most poetical kind. All his feel. ings came to him through a poetical medium, or were speedily colored by it. He enjoyed a jest as heartily as any one, and sympathized with the lowliest common-place; but the next minute his thoughts were in a garden of enchantment, with nymphs, and fauns, and shapes of exalted humanity ;
Elysian beauty, melancholy grace.
It might be said of him, that he never beheld an oak-tree with. out seeing the Dryad. His fame may now forgive the critics who disliked his politics, and did not understand his poetry. Repeated editions of him in England, France, and America, attest its triumphant survival of all obloquy; and there can be no doubt that he has taken a permanent station among the British Poets, of a very high, if not thoroughly mature, description.
Keats's early poetry, indeed, partook plentifully of the exuberance of youth; and even in most of his later, his sensibility, sharpened by mortal illness, tended to a morbid excess. His region is “a wilderness of sweets,”-flowers of all hue, and “weeds of glorious feature,”—where, as he says, the luxuriant soil brings
The pipy hemlock to strange overgrowth
But there also is the “rain-scented eglantine," and bushes of May-flowers, with bees, and myrtle, and bay,—and endless paths into forests haunted with the loveliest as well as the gentlest beings; and the gods live in the distance, amid notes of majestic thunder. I do not say that no “surfeit” is ever there; but I do, that there is no end to the “nectared sweets.” In what other English poet (however superior to him in other respects) are you so certain of never opening a page without lighting upon the loveliest imagery and the most eloquent expressions ? Name one. Compare any succession of their pages at random, and see if the young poet is not sure to present his stock of beauty ; crude it may be, in many instances; too indiscriminate in general; never, perhaps, thoroughly perfect in cultivation; but there it is, exquisite of its kind, and filling envy with despair. He died at five-and-twenty; he had not revised his earlier works, nor given his genius its last pruning. His Endymion, in resolving to be free from all critical trammels, had no versification ; and his last noble fragment, Hyperion, is not faultless,—but it is nearly so. The Eve of St. Agnes betrays morbidity only in one in. stance (noticed in the comment). Even in his earliest productions, which are to be considered as those of youth just emerging from boyhood, are to be found passages of as masculine a beauty as ever were written. Witness the Sonnet on reading Chapman's Homer,-epical in the splendor and dignity of its images, and terminating with the noblest Greek simplicity. Among his finished productions, however, of any length, the Eve of St. Agnes still appears to me the most delightful and complete specimen of his genius. It stands mid-way between his most sensi. tive ones (which, though of rare beauty, occasionally sink into feebleness) and the less generally characteristic majesty of the fragment of Hyperion. Doubtless his greatest poetry is to be found in Hyperion; and had he lived, there is little doubt he would have written chiefly in that strain ; rising superior to those languishments of love which made the critics so angry, and which they might so easily have pardoned at his time of life. But the Eve of St. Agnes had already bid most of them adieu,exquisitely loving as it is. It is young, but full-grown poetry of the rarest description; graceful as the beardless Apollo; glowing and gorgeous with the colors of romance. I have there. fore reprinted the whole of it in the present volume, together with the comment alluded to in the Preface; especially as, in addition to felicity of treatment, its subject is in every respect a happy one, and helps to “paint this our bower of “poetry with delight.” Melancholy, it is true, will “break in” when the reader thinks of the early death of such a writer; but it is one of the benevolent provisions of nature, that all good things tend to pleasure in the recollection; when the bitterness of their loss is past, their own sweetness embalms them.
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.
While writing this paragraph, a hand-organ out-of-doors has been playing one of the mournfullest and loveliest of the airs of Bellini—another genius who died young. The sound of music always gives a feeling either of triumph or tenderness to the state of mind in which it is heard: in this instance it seemed like one departed spirit come to bear testimony of another, and to say how true indeed may be the union of sorrowful and sweet recollections.
Keats knew the youthful faults of his poetry as well as any man, as the reader may see by the preface to Endymion, and its touching though manly acknowledgment of them to critical candor. I have this moment read it again, after a lapse of years, and have been astonished to think how anybody could answer such an appeal to the mercy of strength, with the cruelty of weakness. All the good for which Mr. Gifford pretended to be zealous, he might have effected with pain to no one, and glory to himself; and therefore all the evil he mixed with it was of his own making. But the secret at the bottom of such unprovoked censure is exasperated inferiority. Young poets, upon the whole,—at least very young poets,—had better not publish at all. They are pretty sure to have faults; and jeal. ousy and envy are sure to find them out, and wreak upon them their own disappointments. The critic is often an unsuccessful author, almost always an inferior one to a man of genius, and possesses his sensibility neither to beauty nor to pain. If he does,—if by any chance he is a man of genius himself (and such things have been), sure and certain will be his regret, some day, for having given pains which he might have turned into
noble pleasures; and nothing will console him but that very charity towards himself, the grace of which can only be secured to us by our having denied it to no one.
Let the student of poetry observe, that in all the luxury of the Eve of Saint Agnes there is nothing of the conventional craft of artificial writers; no heaping up of words or similes for their own sakes or the rhyme's sake ; no gaudy common-places; no borrowed airs of earnestness; no tricks of inversion; no substitution of reading or of ingenious thoughts for feeling or spontaneity; no irrelevancy or unfitness of any sort. All flows out of sincerity and passion. The writer is as much in love with the heroine as his hero is; his description of the painted window, however gorgeous, has not an untrue or superfluous word; and the only speck of a fault in the whole poem arises from an excess of emotion.
THE EVE OF SAINT AGNES.'
St. Agnes' Eve—Ah! bitter chill it was :
Seem'd taking flight for heaven without a death
His prayer he saitli, this patient, holy man,
Rough ashes sat he, for his soul's reprieve;
Stared, where upon their heads the cornice rests,
At length burst in the argent revelry
On love, and wing'd St. Agnes' saintly care,
They told her how, upon St. Agnes' Eve,