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

IV. Keats

§ 10. Summary

Save for this sonnet, the year 1820 was a blank. Even before the seizure of 3 February, his poetic power had declined, though still capable of glorious flashes such as redeem the revised Hyperion. With the publication of his last volume, in July, some perception of his real stature at length dawned in the high places of criticism. Jeffrey, in The Edinburgh, did not conceal his admiration; Byron admitted that, in Hyperion, the surgeon’s apprentice had really “done something great”; Shelley, strangely indifferent to the rest of the volume, declared that, if Hyperion were not grand poetry, none had been written in his time. Neither Shelley nor Keats completely understood each other; but the younger poet here fell short, both in critical discernment and in modesty, of the elder; his chief recorded utterance about Shelley, and addressed to him, expresses only the annoyance of a lover of fine phrases at the “magnanimity” of the idealist which stood in their way. Of the fact that Shelley’s mind, with some limitations from which he was exempt, had a far larger reach than his own, he nowhere betrays any perception. To Shelley’s cordial overtures of friendship, he had, throughout, responded with reserve; and an invitation now received from him (August, 1820), to spend the winter with him in Italy, was declined. Even such companionship could not be faced by a dying man. A month later, Keats set out for Rome in care of the devoted Severn, who, during this last brief, sad phase of the poet’s life, takes the place of the no less devoted Brown. There, after a relapse from which he never recovered, he died on 23 February, 1821. Four days later, he was buried in the Protestant cemetery. In April, the self-effacing epitaph which described him as “one who had writ in water” was magnificently belied by Adonais.

“I am certain of nothing,” Keats once wrote, “but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the Truth of Imagination.” Neither Wordsworth nor Shelley put so trenchantly the faith that was implicit in the poetry of both. Nor would either have asserted with the same daring simplicity that he had” pursued the principle of Beauty in all things.” Abstractions distinguishable from beauty—nature, liberty, love—and truths with which imagination had little to do, counted for as much, or more, with both; and beauty itself is with neither of them so comprehensive, with neither so near and intimate, as it is with Keats. Shelley’s worship is remote and “intellectual,” at once too abstract and too simple to take in much of the concrete and complex actual world. It was the “Life of Life,” and his gaze pressed home to it through the shimmering veil of the material beauty by which other men’s senses were arrested and detained. It was a harmony, perfectly realised only in a world completely at one with itself. The complexities and conflicts of life, and its resulting pain and sorrow, thus remained, for him, purely evil things, of inferior status, even in poetry. Keats could not compare with Shelley in range of ideas, but neither was he weighted with Shelley’s speculative incubus; if his thought was not illuminated by Plato, neither was it distorted by Godwin; if he had not access to the sublimities of Aeschylus, he was steeped in the rich humanity of Shakespeare and Spenser and Browne and Wordsworth. His whole imaginative and emotional life was permeated by his eager and acute sensations; while his senses—it is but the other side of the same fact—were transfigured by imagination and emotion. He projected himself instinctively and eagerly into the nature of other living things, not merely some “immortal” nightingale whose song set wide the magic casements of romance in his heart, but the mere sparrow picking about the gravel before his window. He was no subtle-souled psychologist like Coleridge, but he rendered emotions with a power and richness in which exquisiteness of feeling and poignancy of sensuous symbolism have equal part. Shelley’s explanation of his unlettered mastery of the myths of Greece—“He was a Greek”—was more generous than apt; he was nearer akin to the Elizabethans, nearer to Wordsworth, nearer even to Shelley himself; but he recovered more completely than any of them the intense humanising vision of nature of which primeval myth was born. And he won his way from the “Asiatic” luxury of his first work to a power of striking home by the fewest and most familiar words, as in La Belle Dame, which, utterly un-Greek in atmosphere and spirit, has the magical simplicity of scme lyrics of the Anthology. He did not learn to express beauty so comprehensively as he perceived and understood it; probably, he would never have approached in drama the full compass of the beauty which lies, he knew, in the agonies and strife of life—the beauty of

  • the fierce dispute
  • Between damnation and impassion’d clay
  • in King Lear or Macbeth. But, in the imaginative intensity of single phrases, no English poet has come nearer to Shakespeare or oftener recalls him.

    And, in Hyperion, he showed himself master, not only of a poetic speech for which no theme was too noble or too great, but of a power of construction by no means to be explained by the great example he had before him. It would be rash to say what in poetry would have been beyond the reach of one who, at twenty-five, compels the comparison with Shakespeare and Milton, and yet, deeply as he came under their spell, was lifted by their genius only into more complete possession of his own.