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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Louise Imogen Guiney (1861–1920)

By John Keats (1795–1821)

NEARLY all people who read poetry have a favoritism for Keats; he is in many respects the popular hero of English literature. He was young, and chivalrously devoted to his art; he has a mastery of expression almost unparalleled; he is neither obscure nor polemic; and he has had from the first a most fecundating influence on other minds: in Hood, in Tennyson, in Rossetti and Matthew Arnold, in Lanier and Lowell, in Yeats and Watson, one feels the breath and touch of Keats like an incantation. It is a test of the truly original genius that it shall stand in line with the past and the future of its race; that it shall be essentially filial and paternal. Newman says somewhere in his ever lucid manner: “Good is not only good, but reproductive of good; this is one of its attributes; nothing is excellent, beautiful, perfect, desirable, for its own sake, but it overflows, and spreads the likeness of itself all around it…. A great good will impart great good.” And as he might have added, it will have derived it. Keats first woke and knew himself reading Spenser’s world of faëry, where abstract harmonies wander,

  • And the gloom divine is all around,
  • And underneath is the mossy ground.”
  • That was really his opening event. His outer story is soon told. Let it count as it can that Keats was of commonplace stock, born on the 31st of October, 1795, early orphaned, having a small competence wasted prematurely through the fault of others; that he had careful schooling in his boyhood, and kind friends then and famous friends after to spur him on to achieve his best, never having set foot in a university save as a passing guest; that he was apprenticed to a country surgeon, and got absorbed, little by little and with exclusive passion, in literature; that he was small in person, but muscularly made, with a head and face of alert and serious beauty; and that his behavior in all the relations of life was cheerful, disinterested, modest, honorable, kind; that his health broke,—but not because of his anxieties, of which a fevered love-affair was chief,—and that he died in exile at Rome on the 23d of February, 1821, aged five-and-twenty, uncertain of the fate of his third and last book, in which lay his whole gathered force, his brave bid for human remembrance.

    Keats’s early attempts were certainly over-colored. ‘Endymion,’ despite its soft graces and two enchanting lyric interludes, is a disquieting performance. Yet it turned out to be, as he knew, a rock under his feet whence he could make a progress, and not a quicksand which he had to abandon in order to be saved. Like Mozart’s or Raphael’s, his work is singularly of a piece. His ambition in his novice days was great and conscious: “I that am ever all athirst for glory!” he cries in a sonnet composed in 1817. Everything he wrote was for a while embroidered and interrupted with manifold invocations to his Muse, or melodiously irrelevant remarks concerning his own unworthiness and pious intentions. And there is nothing finer in the history of English letters than his growth, by self-criticism, from these molluscous moods into the perception and interpretation of objective beauty. His dominant qualities, bad and good, exist from the first, and all along: they seem never to have moved from their own ground. But they undergo the most lovely transformations; in his own Hebraic phrase, they “die into life,” into the perfected splendor of the Keats we know. He embraced discipline. Knowing no Greek (it was part of Shelley’s generous plan, when both were unwittingly so near the grave, to “keep Keats’s body warm, and teach him Greek and Spanish”), the little London poet turned loyally to Greek ideals: the most unlikely loadstones, one would think, for his opulent and inebriate imagination. Towards these ideals, and not only towards the entrancing mythologies extern to them, he toiled. Recognizing the richness and redundance of his rebellious fancy, he therefore set before himself truth, and the calm report of it; height and largeness; severity, and poise, and restraint. The processes are perceptible alike in lyric, narrative, and sonnet, taken in the lump and chronologically; the amazing result is plain at last in the recast and unfinished ‘Hyperion,’ and in the incomparable volume of 1820, containing ‘Lamia,’ ‘Isabella,’ ‘The Eve of Saint Agnes,’ and the Odes. It is as if a dweller in the fen country should elect to build upon Jura. This may be the award of a vocation and a concentrated mind, or even the happy instinct of genius. It betokens, no less, sovereignty of another sort. “Keats had flint and iron in him,” says Mr. Matthew Arnold; “he had character.” Even as the gods gave him his natural life of the intellect, he matched them at their own game; for he earned his immortality.

    Now, what is the outstanding extraneous feature of Keats’s poetry? It is perhaps the musical and sculptural effect which he can make with words: a necromancy which he exercises with hardly a rival, even “among the greatest”; and among these he justly hoped to stand. Observe that a facility of this sort cannot be a natural endowment, since we must still, as Sir Philip Sidney bewails, “be put to school to learn our mother-tongue”; and that it implies ascetic diligence in the artist compassing it. Moreover, Keats’s craftsmanship is no menace to him. It is true that he carries, in general, no such hindering burden of thought along his lyre as Donne, Dryden, Wordsworth, Browning; but neither, once having learned his strength, does he ever fall into the mere teasing ecstasy of symbolic sound, as Shelley does often, as Swinburne does more often than not. Keats, unlike Shelley or a cherub, is not all wing; he “stands foursquare” when he wills, or moves like the men of the Parthenon frieze, with a health and joyous gravity entirely carnal. The most remarkable of all his powers is this power of deliciously presenting the inconceivable, without strain or fantasticality, so that it takes rank at once among laws which any one might have seen and said—laws necessary to man in his higher moods. Neither Virgil, nor Dante, nor Milton,—although he touches deep truths, and Keats only their beautiful analogies,—has a more illumining habit of speech. Mr. Bradford Torrey, in a recent essay in the Atlantic Monthly, cited, as master instances of “verbal magic” in English, a passage from Shakespeare, another from Wordsworth, which have long had the profound admiration of feeling hearts. These are—

  • “—boughs that shake against the cold,
  • Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang,”
  • and again—
  • “—old unhappy far-off things,
  • And battles long ago.”
  • The condition of the best “magic” is surely that it shall be unaccountable; but the magnificent lines just cited are not at all so,—at least fundamentally, to any acquainted with what may be called their historic context. Shakespeare eyeing the melancholy winter trees as he writes his sonnet, and sympathetically conscious of the glorious abbey churches newly dismantled on every side, unroofed, emptied, discolored, their choral voices hushed; Wordsworth conjecturing the matter of his Scots girl-gleaner’s song to have been (as indeed it must have been, caught from her aged grandsire’s lips at home!) a memory of the Forty-five, an echo of the romantic Jacobite insurrection, enough in itself to inspire poets forever;—these are but transmuting their everyday tradition and impression into literature. But the “younger brother” is not so to be tracked; when we come to the finest definite images of his pages, such as
  • Magic casements opening on the foam
  • Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn,”
  • we feel that he lived in Illyria, rather than in the capital of his Sacred Majesty George the Fourth. Some conception which defies genesis is under his every stanza; word on word is wrought of miracles. Yet the whole is fragrant of obedience, temperance, labor. This it is which makes the art of Keats a very heartening spectacle, over and above its extreme solace and charm; and his own clan will always be his most vehement adorers, because they, better than any, have insight into his heroic temper.

    Time, accumulatively wise with the imparted second thoughts of all men of genius, has not failed to make huge excisions in Keats’s dramatic, satiric, and amatory work; and to name the earliest and the latest verses among utterances forgivably imperfect. But striking away from Keats’s fame all which refuses to cohere, leaves large to the eye what a noble and endearing shrine of song! Far more effectually than any other at our command, the lad John Keats, being but heard and seen, bears in upon the docile intelligence what is meant by pure poesy; the most elemental and tangible, as well as the most occult and uncataloguable (if one may coin so fierce a word!) of mortal pleasures. Although he must always call forth personal love and reverence, his value is unmistakably super-personal. Keats is the Celt, the standard-bearer of revealed beauty, among the English, and carries her colors triumphantly into our actual air.