The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

IV. Keats

§ 1. Early years

JOHN KEATS was born on 29 or 31 October, 1795, the eldest son of a livery-stable keeper in Finsbury Pavement, London. Sent, as a child of eight, to a school at Enfield, he attracted the interest and, before long, the devoted friendship of the junior master, Charles Cowden Clarke, to whom he owed his first initiation into poetry. About 1813, Clarke read to the young surgeon’s apprentice Spenser’s Epithalamion, and put into his hands The Faerie Queene. In phrases as indispensable to the portrayer of Keats as those of Hogg to the biographer of Shelley, Clarke tells us how

  • he went thro’ it as a young horse thro’ a spring meadow ramping.… Like a true poet, too, he specially singled out epithets,… he hoisted himself up, and looked burly and dominant, as he said, “What an image that is,—‘sea-shouldring whales.’”
  • His earliest extant poem (1813) was an Imitation of Spenser. Yet, Spenser was to count for less in his poetry than other Elizabethans to whom Spenser led him—Fletcher, Browne and Chapman; and it was the arresting experience of “first looking into Chapman’s Homer” that prompted, early in 1815, his earliest outburst of great song. The writings of Leigh Hunt added an influence kindred, in some points, to these, and quickened, from the summer of 1816, by the spell of personal friendship. At Hunt’s Hampstead cottage, Keats met Hazlitt, Haydon and Shelley. The former two won his deep admiration; Hazlitt’s “depth of taste” and Haydon’s pictures he declared to be, with The Excursion, “the three things to rejoice in in this age,” a dictum which, in each point, foreshadows a riper Keats than his poetry at this date betokens. His first volume of poems, issued in 1817, is still impressed, both for better and for worse, with the influence of Hunt. For better, since Keats could still learn much from his Ariosto-like charm and ease, and especially from his revival of the flexible mode of the rimed couplet; for worse, since Hunt’s faults of looseness and bad taste were, for Keats, still insidious and infectious. The volume marks the swiftness of his upward flight. Between the stanzas To some Ladies and I stood tiptoe or Sleep and Poetry, the distance is enormous, and Hunt’s was the most powerful of the external forces which concurred with the most potent of all, his own ripening vision of beauty and truth. This vision of beauty, steadily growing richer as well as purer and more intense, inspires Sleep and Poetry, a noble prelude and forecast of his own future song. Still a young neophyte—“not yet a glorious denizen of the heaven of poesy”—he derides, with boyish emphasis, the mechanic practitioners who “wore its mark.” Keats was only renewing in fiery verse, when the battle was far advanced, the challenge with which, in his prose preface, Wordsworth had opened the affray. But Wordsworth had plainly helped him, also, to grasp the ideal task of the poet, and, thus, to formulate his own poetic aims. In Tintern Abbey, the older poet had looked back upon the ecstasies of his youthful passion for nature with a mind which had already reached a “sublimer mood,” responsive to the burden and mystery of the world. Keats finds in that retrospect the clue to his own forecast. He, too, will pass from the region of thoughtless joy—the realm of Flora and old Pan, where he chose each pleasure that his fancy saw—to “the agonies, the strife of human hearts”; for this he already knows to be “the nobler life.” But the parallel, though real, must not be too closely pressed. Keats was no disciple even of Wordsworth; he forged his own way, and his vision of beauty, even in its present immature stage, is far richer and more various than can be ascribed to the Wordsworth of 1793. Apart from his greater opulence of sensation, he draws a delight, which never counted for much with Wordsworth, from the imagination of others; beauty, for him, is not only “a living presence of the earth”; the bright deities of Greeks and Elizabethans have their part in it, and Keats revels in airy touches which give us momentary glimpses of them. Is he indignant at the riot of foppery and barbarism? Apollo is indignant too; and to read the meaning of Jove’s large eye-brow is no less a part of the poetic vision than to paint the tender green of April meadows. The caressing charm and joyance of manner, as well as the flowing rimed couplets, are still reminiscent only of Hunt, and, at the close, he turns from awed contemplation of the “long perspective of the realms of poesy” before him to describe, with a full heart, the home of his good friend and mentor, and
  • The hearty grasp that sends a pleasant sonnet
  • Into the brain ere one can think upon it.
  • The sonnet was, indeed, at this stage, Keats’s most familiar mode of lyric expression. As early as 1814, he had stammered in this form his boyish worship of Byron and Chatterton. The seventeen sonnets published in the 1817 volume are mostly fresh utterances of admiring friendship. Haydon, his future sister-in-law Georgiana (“nymph of the downward smile and sidelong glance”), his brothers, or “kind Hunt” are addressed or remembered in eminently “pleasant,” but rarely accomplished, verse. They all follow the severe Petrarchian rimeform used by Wordsworth, and often recall his more meditative sonnets both in phrase and sentiment.

    The little volume was discriminatingly reviewed by Hunt, but made no impression. Keats, too acutely sensitive to his own critical judgment to care much for the world’s, was already immersed in the great quest of beauty of which he had dreamed in Sleep and Poetry.