WORK OF 1818, 1819.–I. THE ACHIEVEMENTS
Minor achievements– Bards of Passion and of Mirth — Fancy –The tales- Isabella –Story and metre–Influence of Chaucer–Apostrophes and invocations–Horror turned to beauty–The digging scene–Its quality — The Eve of St Agnes –Variety of sources– Boccaccio Filocolo -Poetic scope and method–Examples–The unrobing scene–The feast of fruits–A rounded close– Lamia –Sources: and a comparison-Metre and quality–Beauties and faults–Perplexing moral–The sage denounced: why?–Comments of Leigh Hunt–The odes: To Psyche -Sources: Burton and Apuleius–Qualities: A questionable claim- On Indollence — On a Grecian Urn –Sources: A composite–Spheres of art and life contrasted–Play between the two spheres–The Nightingale ode– Ode on Melancholy –A grand close–The last of the odes– To Autumn.
The work of Keats’s two mature years (if any poet or man in his twenty-third and twenty-fourth years can be called mature) seems to divide itself naturally into two main groups or classes. One class consists of his finished achievements, things successfully carried through in accordance with his first intention; the other of his fragments and experiments, things begun and broken off either from external causes or because in the execution the poet changed his mind or his inspiration failed to sustain itself. I shall ask the reader to consider the two classes separately, the achievements first: not because there may not be even finer work in some of the fragments, but because a thing incomplete, a torso, however splendid in power and promise, cannot be judged on the same terms or with the same approach to finality as a thing of which the whole is before us.
One finished thing only, the play of Otho the Great, I shall turn over to the second or experimental class, seeing that an experiment it essentially was, and one tried under conditions which made it impossible for Keats to be his true self.
The class of achievements will include, then, besides a score of sonnets and a few minor pieces of various form, the three completed tales in verse, Isabella, or the Pot of Basil, The Eve of St Agnes, and Lamia; with the six odes, To Psyche, On Indolence (not published in Keats’s lifetime), On a Grecian Urn, To a Nightingale, To Melancholy, and To Autumn. Beginning with the minor things,–the sonnets, being mostly occasional and autobiographical, have been sufficiently touched on in our narrative chapters, and so have several of the shorter lyrics, In drear-nighted December, Meg Menilies, and La Belle Dame Sans Merci. There remains chiefly the batch of pieces in the seven-syllable couplet metre printed in the Lamia volume between the odes To Psyche and To Autumn. Two of these, Lines on the Mermaid Tavern and Robin Hood, were written, as we have seen, at the beginning of 1818, in the months when Keats was living alone in Well Walk and resting after his labour on Endymion. Both are easy, spirited, and intensely English in feeling; both, for all their gay lightness of touch, are marked with that vivid imaginative life in single phrases which almost from the first, amidst all the rawnesses of his youth, stamps Keats for a poet of the great lineage. Already two years earlier, in the valentine ‘Hadst thou liv’d in days of old,’ he had shown a fair command of this metre, and now we can feel that he has an ear well trained in its cadences by familiarity with the finest early models, from Fletcher (in the Faithful Shepherdess) and Ben Jonson (in the masque of The Satyr, the songs To Celia, and the Charis lyrics) down to L’Allegro and Il Penseroso.
The other two pieces in the same form, Bards of Passion and of Mirth and Fancy, date from nearly a year later, when Keats had settled under Brown’s roof after Tom’s death, and were copied by him for his brother in a letter dated January 2nd, 1819. In the Mermaid Tavern lines he had followed in fancy the poet-guests of that hostelry to the Elysian fields and asked them if they found there any finer entertainment than in their old haunt. In Bards of Passion and of Mirth, which he wrote on a blank page in Dilke’s copy of Beaumont and Fletcher, Keats singles out this particular pair of poet-partners to follow beyond the grave, and in a strain somewhat more serious tells of the double lives they lead,–their souls left here on earth in their writings, and themselves–
Seated on Elysian lawns
Brows’d by none but Dian’s fawns . . .
Where the nightingale cloth sing
Not a senseless, tranceèd thing,
But divine, melodious truth;
Philosophic numbers smooth;
Tales and golden histories
Of heaven and its mysteries.
In the affirmation with which the piece concludes,–
Bards of Passion and of Mirth,
Ye have left your souls on Earth!
Ye have souls in heaven too,
Double-liv’d in regions new!–
in this affirmation it seems, as Mr Buxton Forman has pointed out, as though Keats were gaily countering the view of Wordsworth in the well-known stanzas where., declaring how the power of Burns survives ‘deep in the general heart of men,’ he goes on to ask what need has the poet for any other kind of Elysian after-life.(56)
Following an eighteenth-century practice, Keats calls this set of hepta-syllabics an ode, a form which in strictness it no way resembles. A higher place is taken in his work by the longest poem he sends his brother in the same metre, Fancy. He calls it a rondeau, again rather at random; but he had already called the Bacchus lyric in Endymion a roundelay, and seems to have thought that the name might apply to any set of verses returning upon itself at the end with a repetition of its beginning. In the present case he both opens and closes his poem with the same idea as has been condensed by a later writer in the two-line refrain–
But every poet, born to stray,
Still feeds upon the far-away.
The opening lines run,–
Ever let the Fancy roam,
Pleasure never is at home:
At a touch sweet Pleasure melteth,
Like to bubbles when rain pelteth;
Then let winged Fancy wander
Through the thought still spread beyond her:
Open wide the mind’s cage-door,
She’ll dart forth, and cloudward soar.
O sweet Fancy! let her loose;
Summer’s joys are spout by use,
And the enjoying of the Spring
Fades as does its blossoming;
Autumn’s red-lipp’d fruitage too,
Blushing through the mist and dew,
Cloys with tasting: What do then?
The answer is that the thing to do is to sit by the chimney comer while Fancy goes ranging abroad to find and bring home a harvest of incompatible and contradictory delights; and after the evocation of a number of such the poem comes round at the end to a slightly altered repetition of its opening couplet,–
Let the winged Fancy roam
Pleasure never is at home.
I like to think that Keats may have drawn his impulse to writing this poem from the fine passage in Fuller Holy State quoted by Lamb in his brief “‘Specimens'” of that author (57):–
Fancy.–It is the most boundless and restless faculty of the soul. . . . it digs without spade, sails without ship, flies without wings, builds without charges, fights without bloodshed; in a moment striding from the centre to the circumference of the world; by a kind of omnipotency creating and annihilating things in an instant; and things divorced in Nature are married in Fancy as in a lawless place.
At any rate Keats’s poem, in its best and central part, is a delightful embroidery on the ideas here expressed. The notion, or vision, of a lawless place where all manner of things divorced in nature abide together and happily jostle, was one that often haunted him, as witness his verse-epistle to Reynolds from Teignmouth, the fragment he calls The Castle Builder, and again the piece beginning ‘Welcome joy and welcome sorrow,’ to which there has been posthumously given the title A Song of Opposites. The lines evoking such a vision in this poem, Fancy, are almost his happiest in his lighter vein, and are written in the true Elizabethan tradition: the predominant influence in the handling of the measure being, to my ear, that of Ben Jonson, who is wont to give it a certain weight and slowness of movement by the free use of long syllables in the unaccented places; even so Keats, in the passage quoted above, puts in such places words Eke ‘sweet,’ ‘rain,’ ‘still,’ ‘cage,’ ‘dart,’ ‘lipp’d.’
Passing from the minor to the major achievements of the time, the earliest, and to my mind the finest, of these is Isabella, or the Pot of Basil. During the writing of Endymion, Keats had intended his next effort to be on the lofty classic and symbolic theme of the dethronement of Hyperion and the Titans and the accession of Apollo and the Olympians. But certain reading and talk in the Hunt circle having diverted him from this purpose for a while, and made him take up the idea of a volume of metrical tales from Boccaccio to be written jointly by himself and Reynolds, he chose the tale of the Pot of Basil (the fifth of the fourth day in the Decameron), made a sudden beginning at it before he left Hampstead at the end of February (1819), and finished it at Teignmouth in the course of April. As an appropriate vehicle for an Italian story he took the Italian ottava rima or stanza of eight. Several of the earlier English poets had used this metre: Keats’s main model for it was doubtless Edward Fairfax, who, following other Elizabethan translators, had in his fine version from Tasso, Godfrey of Bulloigne, done much more than any of his predecessors towards suppling and perfecting its treatment in English. Since then it had been little employed in our serious poetry, but had lately been brilliantly revived for flippant and satiric uses, after later Italian models, by Hookham Frere and Byron. Keats goes over the heads of these direct to Fairfax, and in certain points at least, in variety of pause and cadence and subtle adaptation of verbal music to emotional effect, by a good deal outdoes even that excellent master.(58) Of course it is of the essence of his treatment to avoid, in the closing couplet of the stanza, the special effect of witty snap and suddenness which fits it so well for the purpose of satire.
Every one knows the story: how a maiden of Messina ( Keats chooses to transfer the scene to Florence), living in the house of her merchant brothers, in secret loves one of their clerks: how her brothers, discovering her secret, take out her lover to the forest and there slay and bury him: how his ghost appearing to her in a dream reveals his fate and burial place: how she hastens thither with her nurse, digs till she finds the corpse and having found it carries home the head and sets it in a pot of basil, or sweet marjoram, which she cherishes and waters With her tears until her brothers take it from her, whereupon she pines away and dies.
Boccaccio tells this story with that admirable combination of straightforward conciseness and finished grace which characterizes his mature prose. Keats in his poem romantically amplifies and embroiders it. In his way of doing so we can trace the influence of Chaucer, with whose Troilus and Criseyde, that miracle of detailed, long-drawn, yet ever human and rarely tedious narrative, he was by this time familiar. Keats, while avoiding Chaucer’s prolixity, diversifies his tale with invocations to Love and to the Muses, with apostrophes to the reader and ejaculatory comments on the events, entirely in Chaucer’s manner: only whereas Chaucer relegates the more part of such matter to the ‘proems’ of his several books, Keats, having plunged into the thick of the story in his first line, finds room for his apostrophes and invocations in the course of the narrative itself. Most critics have taken the view that this is evidence of weak or immature art. To my mind this is not so: the pauses thus introduced are never long enough to hold up the flow and interest of the narrative, while they afford welcome rests to the attention, pleasant changes from a too sustained narrative construction, with consequent beautiful and happy modulations in the movement of the verse.
One of these invocations–invocation and apology together–is to Boccaccio himself, disowning all idea of improving the tale and defining the poet’s attempt as made but to honour him,–
To stead thee as a verse in English tongue,
An echo of thee in the north-wind sung.
The definition is exact. The revived spirit of English romantic poetry breathes in every line of the verse, and as in Endymion, so here, the southern setting is conceived as though it were English. ‘So the two brothers and their murder’d man’ (the force of the anticipatory epithet has been celebrated by every critic since Lamb)–
So the two brothers and their murder’d man
Rode past fair Florence, to where Arno’s stream
Gurgles through straiten’d banks, and still doth fan
Itself with dancing bulrush, and the bream
Keep head against the freshets.
Another such criticized ‘digression’ tells of the toilers yoked in all quarters of the world to the service of these avaricious merchant brothers. In calling up their sufferings Keats for a moment strikes an unexpected verbal echo from the Annus Mirabilis of Dryden.(59) Dryden, telling of the monopolies of the Dutch in the East India trade, had written,–
For them alone the Heav’ns had kindly heat,
In eastern quarries ripening precious dew:
For them the Idumean balm did sweat,
And in hot Ceilon spicy forests grew.
Keats writes of Isabella’s brothers,–
For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
And went all naked to the hungry shark,
For them his ears gush’d blood–
with more in the same strain, very vividly and humanly imagined, but somewhat unevenly written. On the other hand the last of the rests or interruptions in this poem is to my thinking one of its most original and admirable beauties: I mean the invocation beginning ‘O Melancholy, linger here awhile,’ repeated with lovely modulations in stanzas lv, lvi, and lxi; the poet deliberately pausing to heighten his effect as it were by an accompaniment of words chosen purely for their pathetic melody and more musical than music itself.
Keats’s way of imagining and telling the story is not less delicate than it is intense. Flaws and false notes there are: phrases, as in Endymion, too dulcet and cloying, like that which tells how the lover’s lips grew bold, ‘And poesied with hers in dewy rhyme’: a flat line where it is most out of place–‘And Isabella did not stamp or rave’: a far-fetched rime, as where ‘love’ and ‘grove’ draw in after them the alien idea of Lorenzo not being embalmed in ‘Indian clove.’ But such flaws, abundant in Endymion, are in Isabella rare and need to be searched for. If we want an example of the staple tissue of the poem we shall rather find it in a stanza like this:–
Parting they seem’d to tread upon the air,
Twin roses by the zephyr blown apart
Only to meet again more close, and share
The inward fragrance of each other’s heart.
She, to her chamber gone, a ditty fair
Sang of delicious love and honey’d dart;
He with light steps went up a western hill,
And bade the sun farewell, and joy’d his fill.
The image of love-happiness in the last couplet is as jocund and uplifting as some radiant symbolic drawing by Blake, and poetry has few things more perfect or easier in their perfection.
In a far more difficult kind, where Keats has to deal with the features of the story that might easily make for the repulsive or the macabre, he triumphs not by shirking but by sheer force of passionate imagination. ‘The excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate from their being in close relationship with beauty and truth.’ This dictum of Keats can scarcely be better illustrated than by his own handling of the Isabella story. Take the vision of the murdered man appearing to the girl at night:–
Strange sound it was, when the pale shadow spake;
For there was striving, in its piteous tongue,
To speak as when on earth it was awake,
And Isabella on its music hung:
Languor there was in it, and tremulous shake,
As in a palsied Druid’s harp unstrung;
And through it moan’d a ghostly under-song,
Like hoarse night-gusts sepulchral briars among.
Its eyes, though wild, were still all dewy bright
With love, and kept all phantom fear aloof
From the poor girl by magic of their light.
How wonderfully, in these touches, do we feel love prevailing over horror and purging the apparition of all its charnel ghastliness. When we come to the discovery and digging up of the body, Boccaccio turns the difficulty which must inhere in any realistic treatment of the theme by simply saying that it was uncorrupted; as though some kind of miracle had kept it fresh. Keats on the other hand confronts the difficulty and overcomes it. First he acknowledges how the imagination in dwelling on the dead is prone to call up images of corruptibility:–
Who hath not loiter’d in a green church-yard,
And let his spirit, like a demon-mole,
Work through the clayey soil and gravel hard,
To see scull, coffin’d bones, and funeral stole;
Pitying each form that hungry Death hath marr’d,
And filling it once more with human soul?
Ah! this is holiday to what was felt
When Isabella by Lorenzo knelt.
Then he compulsively leads away the mind from such images to think only of the passionate absorption with which Isabella flings herself upon her task:–
She gaz’d into the fresh-thrown mould, as though
One glance did fully all its secrets tell;
Clearly she saw, as other eyes would know
Pale limbs at bottom of a crystal well;
Upon the murderous spot she seem’d to grow,
Like to a native lilly of the dell:
Then with her knife, all sudden, she began
To dig more fervently than misers can.
Soon she turn’d up a soiled glove, whereon
Her silk had play’d in purple phantasies,
She kiss’d it with a lip more chill than stone,
And put it in her bosom, where it dries
And freezes utterly unto the bone
Those dainties made to still an infant’s cries:
Then ‘gan she work again; nor stay’d her care,
But to throw back at times her veiling hair.
Is any scene in poetry written with more piercing, more unerring, vision? The swift despairing gaze of the girl, anticipating with too dire a certainty the realization of her dream: the simile in the third and fourth lines, emphasizing the clearness of that certainty, and at the same time relieving its terror by an image of beauty: the new simile of the lily, again striking the note of beauty, while it intensifies the impression of her rooted fixity of posture and purpose: the sudden solution of that fixity, with the final couplet, into vehement action, as she begins (with a fine implied commentary on the relative strength of passions) to dig ‘more fervently than misers can’:–then the first reward of her toil, in the shape of a relic not ghastly, but beautiful both in itself and for the tenderness of which it is a token: her womanly action in kissing it and putting it in her bosom, while all the woman and mother in her is in the same words revealed to us as blighted by the tragedy of her life: then the resumption and continuance of her labours, with gestures once more of vital dramatic truth as well as grace:–to imagine and to write like this is the privilege of the best poets only, and even the best have not often combined such concentrated force and beauty of conception with such a limpid and flowing ease of narrative.(60) Poetry had always come to Keats as naturally as leaves to a tree. So he considered it ought to come, and now that it came of a quality like this, he had fairly earned the right, which his rash youth had too soon arrogated, to look down on the fine artificers of the school of Pope. In comparison with the illuminating power of true imaginative poetry, the closest rhetorical condensations of that school seem thin, their most glittering points and aphorisms mechanical: nay, those who admire them most justly will know better than to think the two kinds of writing comparable. The final consignment by Isabella of her treasure to its casket is told with the same genius for turning horror into beauty: note the third and fourth lines of the following, with the magically cooling and soothing effect of their open-vowelled sonority;–
Then in a silken scarf,–sweet with the dews Of precious flowers pluck’d in Araby, And divine liquids come with odorous ooze Through the cold serpent-pipe refreshfully,-She wrapp’d it up; and for its tomb did choose A garden-pot, wherein she laid it by, And cover’d it with mould, and o’er it set Sweet Basil, which her tears kept ever wet.
And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun, And she forgot the blue above the trees, And she forgot the dells where waters run, And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze; She had no knowledge when the day was done, And the new morn she saw not: but in peace Hung over her sweet Basil evermore, And moisten’d it with tears unto the core.
In passages like these of Isabella Keats, for one reader at least, reaches his high-water mark in human feeling, and in felicity both imaginative and executive. The next of his three poetic tales, The Eve of St Agnes, does not strike so deep, though it is more nearly faultless and lives as the most complete and enchanting English pure romance-poem of its time. Little or none of the effect is due in this case to elements of magic weirdness or supernatural terror such as counted for so much in the general romantic poetry of the day, and had been of the very essence of achievements so diverse as The Ancient Mariner, Christabel, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, and Isabella itself. The tale hinges on the popular belief that on St Agnes’s Eve ( January the 20th) a maiden might win sight of her future husband in a dream by going to bed supperless, silent and without looking behind her, and sleeping on her back with her hands on the pillow above her head. This belief is mentioned by two writers at least with whom Keats was very familiar: by Ben Jonson in his masque The Satyr and Robert Burton in the Anatomy of Melancholy. An eighteenth-century book of reference which he may well have known also, Brand’s Popular Antiquities, cites the superstition and adds from a current chapbook a fuller account of it, mentioning other and alternative rites. But one feature of the promised vision which in Keats’s mind was evidently essential, that the lover should regale his mistress after her fasting dream with exquisite viands and music, is not noted in any of these sources: Keats must either have invented it or drawn it from some other authority which criticism has not yet recognised.
It was an obvious and easy idea for Keats to weave into the St Agnes’s Eve motive the motive of a lovepassion between the son and daughter of hostile houses, and to bring the youth to a festival in the halls of his enemies in a manner which reminds one both of Romeo and Juliet and of the young Lochinvar in Scott’s ballad. A remoter source has lately been pointed out as probable for the subsequent incidents of the lover’s concealment by the old nurse in a closet next the maiden’s chamber, his coming in to her while she sleeps, the melting of his real self into her dream of him, her momentary disenchantment and alarm on awakening, her re-assurance and surrender and their ensuing happy union and flight. All these circumstances, it has been shown, except the immediate flight of the lovers, are closely paralleled in Boccaccio’s early novel Il Filocolo, and look as though they must have been derived from it. The Filocolo is an excessively tedious and occasionally coarse amplification in prose, made by Boccaccio when his style was still unformed, of the old French metrical romance, long popular throughout Europe, of Floire et Blancheflor. The question is, how should Keats have come to be acquainted with it? At this time he knew very little Italian. He was accustomed to read his Decameron in a translation,(61) and eight months later we find him with difficulty making out Ariosto at the rate of ten or a dozen stanzas a day. A French seventeenth-century version of the Filocolo indeed existed, but none in English. Can it be that Hunt had told Keats the story, or at least those parts of it which would serve him, in the course of talk about Boccaccio? One would not have expected even Hunt’s love of Italian reading to sustain him through the tedium of this early and little known novel by the master: moreover in criticizing The Eve of St Agnes he gives no hint that Keats was indebted to him for any of its incidents. But there the resemblances are, too close to be easily explained as coincidences. The part played by the old nurse Angela in Keats’s poem echoes pretty closely the part played by Glorizia in the Filocolo; the drama, dreaming and awake, played between Madeline and Porphyro, repeats, though in a far finer strain, that between Biancofiore and Florio; so that Keats’s narrative reads truly like a magically refined and enriched quintessence distilled from the corresponding chapter in Boccaccio’s tale.(62)
But the question of sources is one for the special student, and its discussion may easily tire the lay reader. Passing to the poem and its qualities, we have to note first that, fresh from treading, in his Hyperion attempt, in the path of Milton, Keats in The Eve of St Agnes went back, so far as his manner is derivative at all, to the example of his first master, Spenser. He shows as perfect a command of the Spenserian stanza, with its ‘sweet-slipping movement,’ as Spenser himself, and as subtle a sense as his of the leisurely meditative pace imposed upon the metre by the lingering Alexandrine at the close. Narrating at this pace and in this mood, he is able at any moment with the lightest of touches to launch the imagination to music on a voyage beyond the beyonds and to charge every line, every word almost, with a richness and fullness of far-away suggestion that yet never clogs the easy harmonious flow of the verse. At the same time he does not, in this new poem, attempt anything like the depth of human passion and pathos which he had touched in Isabella, and his personages appeal to us in the manner strictly defined as ‘romantic,’ that is to say not so much humanly and in themselves as by the circumstances, scenery, and atmosphere amidst which they move.
In handling these Keats’s method is the reverse of that by which some writers vainly endeavour to rival in literature the effects of the painter and sculptor. He never writes for the eye merely, but vivifies everything he touches, telling even of dead and senseless things in terms of life, movement, and feeling. From the opening stanza, which makes us feel the chill of the season to our bones,–telling us first of its effect on the wild and tame creatures of wood and field, and next how the frozen breath of the old beadsman in the chapel aisle ‘seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,’–from thence to the close, where the lovers disappear into the night, the poetry throbs in every line with the life of imagination and beauty. The monuments in the aisle are brought before us, not by any effort of description, but solely through our sympathy with the shivering fancy of the beadsman:–
Knights, ladies, praying in dumb orat’ries,
He passeth by; and his weak spirit fails
To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails.
Even into the sculptured heads of the corbels supporting the banquet-hall roof the poet strikes life:–
The carved angels, ever eager-eyed,
Stared, where upon their heads the cornice rests,
With wings blown back, and hands put cross-wise on their
As to support incumbent floor or roof,
For corbel is a figure sometimes seen
That crumples up its knees into its breast;
With the feign’d posture, stirring ruth unfeign’d
In the beholder’s fancy; so I saw
The painted panes in the chamber window, instead of trying to pick out their beauties in detail, he calls–
Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes
As are the tiger-moth’s deep-damask’d wings,–
a gorgeous phrase which leaves the widest range to the colour-imagination of the reader, giving it at the same time a sufficient clue by the simile drawn from a particular specimen of nature’s blazonry.(64) In the last line of the same stanza–
A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of queens and kings,
–the word ‘blush’ makes the colour seem to come and go, while the mind is at the same time sent travelling from the maiden’s chamber on thoughts of her lineage and ancestral fame. Observation, I believe, shows that moonlight has not the power to transmit the separate hues of painted glass as Keats in this celebrated passage represents it, but fuses them into a kind of neutral or indiscriminate opaline shimmer. Let us be grateful for the error, if error it is, which has led him to heighten, by these saintly splendours of colour, the sentiment of a scene wherein a voluptuous glow is so exquisitely attempered with chivalrous chastity and awe. If any reader wishes to realise how the genius of Elizabethan romantic poetry re-awoke in Keats, and how much enriched and enhanced, after two hundred years, let him compare all this scene of Madeline’s unrobing with the passage from Brown Britannia’s Pastorals which was probably in his memory when he wrote it.
When Madeline unclasps her jewels, a weaker poet would have dwelt on their lustre or other visible qualities: Keats puts those aside, and speaks straight to our spirits in an epithet breathing with the very life of the wearer,–‘Her warmèd jewels.’ When Porphyro spreads the feast of dainties beside his sleeping mistress, we are made to feel how those ideal and rare sweets of sense surround and minister to her, not only with their own natural richness, but with the associations and the homage of all far countries whence they have been gathered–
From silken to cedar’d Lebanon.
Concerning this sumptuous passage of the spread feast of fruits, not unequally rivalling the famous one in Milton,(65) Leigh Hunt has some interesting things to say in his Autobiography (66):–
I remember Keats reading to me, with great relish and particularity, conscious of what he had set forth, the lines describing the supper and ending with the words,
And lucent syrups tinct with cinnamon.
Mr Wordsworth would have said the vowels were not varied enough; but Keats knew where his vowels were not to be varied. On the occasion above alluded to, Wordsworth found fault with the repetition of the concluding sound of the participles in Shakespeare‘s line about bees:–
The he singing masons building roofs of gold.
This, he said, was a line which Milton would never have written. Keats thought, on the other hand, that the repetition was in harmony with the continued note of the singers, and that Shakespeare’s negligence, if negligence it was, had instinctively felt the thing in the best manner.
The reader will remember how Bailey records this subject of the musical and emotional effect of vowel sounds, open and close, varied or iterated as the case might be, as one on which Keats’s talk had often run at Oxford. Whatever his theories, he was by this time showing himself as fine a master of such effects as any, even the greatest, of our poets. This same passage, or interlude, of the feast of fruits has despite its beauty been sometimes blamed as a ‘digression.’ A stanza which in Keats’s original draft stood near the beginning of the poem shows that in his mind it was no mere ornament and no digression at all, but an essential part of his scheme. In revision he dropped out this stanza, doubtless as being not up to the mark poetically: pity that he did not rather perfect it and let it keep its place: but even as it is the provision of the dainties made beforehand by the old nurse at Porphyro’s request (stanza XX) proves the feast essential to the story.
While the unique charm of The Eve of St Agnes lies thus in the richness and vitality of the accessory and decorative images, the actions and emotions of the personages are not less happily conceived as far as they go. What can be better touched than the figures of the beadsman and the old nurse Angela? How admirable in particular is the debate held by Angela with Porphyro in her
little moonlight room
Pale, lattic’d, chill, and silent as a tomb.
Madeline, a figure necessarily in the main passive, is none the less exquisite, whether in her gentle dealing with the nurse on the staircase, or when closing her chamber door she pants with quenched taper in the moonlight, and most of all when awakening she finds her lover beside her, and contrasts his bodily presence with her dream:–
‘Ah, Porphyro!’ said she, ‘but even now
Thy voice was at sweet tremble in mine ear,
Made tuneable with every sweetest vow;
And those sad eyes were spiritual and clear:
How chang’d thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear!
Give me that voice again, my Porphyro,
Those looks immortal, those complainings dear!'(67)
In all the doings and circumstances attending the departure of the lovers for a destination left thrillingly vague in the words, ‘For o’er the southern moors I have a home for thee,'(68) –in the elfin storm sent to cover their flight (the only touch of the supernatural in the story), their darkling grope down the stairway, the hush that holds the house and guest-chambers, the windshaken arras, the porter sprawling asleep beside his empty flagon, the awakened bloodhound who recognizes his mistress and is quiet–in Keats’s telling of all these things a like unflagging richness and felicity of imagination holds us spell-bound: and with the deaths of the old nurse and beadsman, once the house has lost its spirit of life and light in Madeline, the poet brings round the tale, after all its glow of passionate colour and music, of trembling anticipation and love-worship enraptured or in suspense, to a chill and wintry close in subtlest harmony with its beginning:–
They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall;
Like phantoms, to the iron porch, they glide;
Where lay the Porter, in uneasy sprawl,
With a huge empty flaggon by his side:
The wakeful bloodhound rose, and shook his hide,
But his sagacious eye an inmate owns:
By one, and one, the bolts full easy slide:
The chains lie silent on the footworn stones;
The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans.
And they are gone: aye, ages long ago
These lovers fled away into the storm.
That night the Baron dreamt of many a woe,
And all his warrior-guests, with shade and form
Of witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm,
Were long be-nightmar’d. Angela the old
Died palsy-twitch’d, with meagre face deform;
The Beadsman, after thousand aves told,
For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold.(69)
The last of the trio of Keats tales in verse, Lamia, owed its origin, and perhaps part of its temper, to his readings in Burton Anatomy of Melancholy. His own experiences under the stings of love and jealousy had led him, during those spring months of 1819 when he could write nothing, to pore much over the treatise of that prodigiously read, satiric old commentator on the maladies of the human mind and body, and especially over those sections of it which deal with the cause and cure of love-melancholy. Entertainment in abundance, information in cartloads, Keats could draw from the matter accumulated and glossed by Burton, but little or nothing to gladden or soothe or fortify him. One story, however, he found which struck his imagination so much that he was moved to write upon it, and that was the old Greek story, quoted by Burton from Philostratus, of Lamia the serpent-lady, at once witch and victim of witchcraft, who loved a youth of Corinth and lived with him in a palace of delights built by her magic, until their happiness was shattered by the scrutiny of intrusive and coldblooded wisdom.
In June 1819, soon after the inspiration which produced the Odes had passed away, and before he left Hampstead for the Isle of Wight, Keats made a beginning on this new task; continued it at intervals, concurrently with his attempts in drama, at Shanklin and Winchester; and finished it by the first week in September. It happened that Thomas Love Peacock had published the year before a tale in verse on a nearly similar theme,–that of the beautiful Thessalian enchantress Rhododaphne: one wonders whether Keats may not have felt in Peacock’s attempt a challenge and stimulus to his own. Peacock’s work, now unduly neglected, is that of an accomplished scholar and craftsman sitting down to tell an old Greek tale of magic in the form of narrative verse then most fashionable, the mixed four-stressed couplet and ballad measure of Scott and Byron, and telling it, for a poet not of genius, gracefully and well. Whether Keats Lamia is a work of genius there is no need to ask. No one can deny the truth of his own criticism of it when he says, ‘I am certain there is that sort of fire in it which must take hold of people in some way–give them either pleasant or unpleasant sensation.’ But personally I cannot agree with the opinion of the late Francis Turner Palgrave and other critics–I think they are the majority –who give it the first place among the tales. On the contrary, if an order of merit among them there must be, I should put it third and lowest, for several reasons of detail as well as for one reason affecting the whole design and composition.
As to the technical qualities of the poetry, let it be granted that Keats’s handling of the heroic couplet, modelled this time on the example of Dryden and not of the Elizabethans, though retaining pleasant traces of the Elizabethan usages of the over-run or enjambement and the varied pause,–let it be granted that his handling of this mode of the metre is masterly. Let it be admitted also that there are passages in the narrative imagined as intensely as any in Isabella or The Eve of St Agnes and told quite as vividly in a style more rapid and condensed. Such is the passage, in the introductory episode which fills so large a relative place in the poem, where Mercury woos and wins his wood-nymph after Lamia has lifted from her the spell of invisibility. Such is the gorgeous, agonized transformation act of Lamia herself from serpent to woman: such again the scene of her waylaying and ensnaring of the youth on his way to Corinth. And such above all would be the whole final scene of the banquet and its break-up, from ‘Soft went the music with soft air along’ to the end, but for the perplexing apostrophe, presently to be considered, which interrupts it. Still counting up the things in the poem to be most praised, here is an example where the poetry of Greek mythology is very eloquently woven into the rhetoric of love:–
Leave thee alone! Look back! Ah! goddess, see
Whether my eyes can ever turn from thee!
For pity do not this sad heart belie–
Even as thou vanishest so I shall die.
Stay! though a Naiad of the rivers, stay!
To thy far wishes will thy streams obey:
Stay I though the greenest woods be thy domain,
Alone they can drink up the morning rain:
Though a descended Pleiad, will not one
Of thine harmonious sisters keep in tune
Thy spheres, and as thy silver proxy shine?
And here a beautiful instance of power and justness in scenic imagination:–
As men talk in a dream, so Corinth all,
Throughout her palaces imperial,
And all her populous streets and temples lewd,
Mutter’d, like tempest in the distance brew’d,
To the wide-spreaded night above her towers.
Men, women, rich and poor, in the cool hours,
Shuffled their sandals o’er the pavement white,
Companion’d or alone; while many a light
Flar’d here and there, from wealthy festivals,
And threw their moving shadows on the walls,
Or found them cluster’d in the cornie’d shade
Of some arch’d temple door, or dusty colonnade.
Turning now to the other side of the account: for one thing, we find jarring and disappointing notes, such as had disappeared from Keats’s works since Endymion, of the old tasteless manner of the Hunt-taught days: for instance the unpalatable passage in the first book beginning ‘Let the mad poets say whate’er they please,’ and worse still, with a new note of idle cynicism added, the lines about love which open the second book. Misplaced archaisms also reappear, such as ‘unshent’ and the participle ‘daft,’ from the obsolete verb ‘daft,’ used as though it meant to puzzle or daze; with bad verbal coinages like ‘piazzian,’ ‘psalterian.’ Moreover, though many things in the poem are potently conceived, others are not so. The description of the magical palacehall is surely a failure, except for the one fine note in the lines,–
A haunting music, sole perhaps and lone
Supporters of the faery-roof, made moan
Throughout, as fearful the whole charm might fade.
The details of the structure, with its pairs of palms and plantains carved in cedar-wood, its walls lined with mirrors, its panels which change magically from plain marble to jasper, its fifty censers and ‘Twelve sphered tables, by twelve seats insphered,’–all this seems feebly and even tastelessly invented in comparison with the impressive dream-architecture in some of Keats’s other poems: I will even go farther, and say that it scarce holds its own against the not much dissimilar magic hall in the sixth canto of Rhododaphne.
But the one fundamental flaw in Lamia concerns its moral. The word is crude: what I mean is the bewilderment in which it leaves us as to the effect intended to be made on our imaginative sympathies. Lamia is a serpent-woman, baleful and a witch, whose love for Lycius fills him with momentary happiness but must, we are made aware, be fatal to him. Apollonius is a philosopher who sees through her and by one steadfast look withers up her magic semblance and destroys her, but in doing so fails to save his pupil, who dies the moment his illusion vanishes. Are these things a bitter parable, meaning that all love-joys are but deception, and that at the touch of wisdom and experience they melt away? If so, the tale might have been told either tragically or satirically, in either case leaving the reader impartial as between the sage and his victim. But Keats in this apostrophe, which I wish he had left out, deliberately points a moral and expressly invites us to take sides:–
What wreath for Lamia? What for Lycius?
What for the sage, old Apollonius?
Upon her aching forehead be there hung
The leaves of willow and of adder’s tongue;
And for the youth, quick, let us strip for him
The thyrsus, that his watching eyes may swim
Into forgetfulness; and, for the sage,
Let spear-grass and the spiteful thistle wage
War on his temples. Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine–
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.
These lines to my mind have not only the fault of breaking the story at a critical point and anticipating its issue, but challenge the mind to untimely questionings and reflections. The wreaths of ominous growth distributed to each of the three personages may symbolize the general tragedy: but why are we asked to take sides with the enchantress, ignoring everything about her except her charm, and against the sage? If she were indeed a thing of bale under a mask of beauty, was not the friend and tutor bound to unmask her? and if the pupil could not survive the loss of his Musion,–if he could not confront the facts of life and build up for himself a new happiness on a surer foundation,–was it not better that he should be let perish? Is there not in all this a slackening of imaginative and intellectual grasp? And especially as to the last lines, do we not feel that they are but a cheap and unilluminating repetition of a rather superficial idea, the idea phrased shortly in Campbell Rainbow and at length in several well-known passages of Wordsworth Excursion, particularly that in the fifth book beginning–
Whom earth, at this late season, hath produced
To regulate the moving spheres, and weigh
The planets in the hollow of their hand;
And they who rather dive than soar, whose pains
Have solved the elements, or analysed
The thinking principle–shall they in fact
Prove a degraded Race?
Wordsworth had twenty years earlier written more wisely, ‘Poetry is the impassioned expression in the eyes of all science.’ The latter-day Wordsworth, and Keats after him, should have realised that the discoveries of ‘philosophy,’ meaning science, create new mysteries while they solve the old, and leave the world as full of poetry as they found it: poetry, it may be, with its point of view shifted, poetry of a new kind, but none the less poetical. Leigh Hunt, in his review of Lamia published on the appearance of the volume, has some remarks partly justifying and partly impugning Keats’s treatment of the story in this respect:–
Mr Keats has departed as much from common-place in the character and moral of this story, as he has in the poetry of it. He would see fair play to the serpent, and makes the power of the philosopher an ill-natured and disturbing thing. Lamia though liable to be turned into painful shapes had a soul of humanity; and the poet does not see why she should not have her pleasures accordingly, merely because a philosopher saw that she was not a mathematical truth. This is fine and good. It is vindicating the greater philosophy of poetry.
So far, this is a manifest piece of special pleading by Hunt on Lamia’s behalf. If she is nothing worse than a being with a soul of humanity liable to be turned into painful shapes, why must Apollonius feel it his duty to wither and destroy her for the safeguarding of his pupil, even at the cost of that pupil’s life? Her witchcraft must consist in something much worse than not being a mathematical truth, else why is he her so bitter enemy? Hunt proceeds, more to the purpose, to protest against the poet’s implication–
that modern experiment has done a deadly thing to poetry by discovering the nature of the rainbow, the air, etc., that is to say, that the knowledge of natural history and physics, by shewing us the nature of things, does away with the imaginations that once adorned them. This is a condescension to a learned vulgarism, which so excellent a poet as Mr Keats ought not to have made. The world will always have fine poetry, so long as it has events, passions, affections, and a philosophy that sees deeper than this philosophy. There will be a poetry of the heart, so long as there are tears and smiles: there will be a poetry of the imagination, as long as the first causes of things remain a mystery. A man who is no poet, may think he is none, as soon as he finds out the physical cause of the rainbow; but he need not alarm himself:–he was none before. The true poet will go deeper. He will ask himself what is the cause of that physical cause; whether truths to the senses are after all to be taken as truths to the imagination; and whether there is not room and mystery enough in the universe for the creation of infinite things, when the poor matter-of-fact philosopher has come to the end of his own vision.
In Endymion Keats had impeded and confused his narrative by working into it much incident and imagery symbolic of the cogitations and aspirations, the upliftings and misgivings, of his own unripe spirit. Three years later, writing to Shelley from his sickbed, he contrasts that former state of his mind with its present state, saying that it was then like a scattered pack of cards but is now sorted to a pip. The three tales just discussed, written in the interval, show how quickly the power of sorting and controlling his imaginations had matured itself in him. In them he is already an artist standing outside of his own conceptions, certain of his own aim in dealing with them (subject perhaps to some reservation in the case of Lamia), and scarcely letting his personal self intrude upon his narrative at all to complicate or distract it.
For the expression of his private moods and meditations he had perfected during the same interval a new and beautiful vehicle in the ode. He had been accustomed to try his hand at odes, or what he called such, from his earliest riming days: and odes also, to all intents and purposes, are the two great lyrics in Endymion, the choral hymn to Pan and the song of the Indian maiden to Sorrow. But those which he composed in quick succession, as we have seen, in the late spring of 1819 are of a reflective and meditative type, new in his work and highly personal.
That which I have shown reason for believing to be the earliest of the group, the Ode to Psyche written in the last days of April, differs somewhat from the rest both in form and spirit. Its strophes are longer and more irregular: its strain less inward and brooding, with more of lyric ardour and exaltation. It tells of the poet’s delight in that late, exquisitely and spiritually symbolic product of the mythologic spirit of expiring paganism, the story of Cupid and Psyche. What may have especially turned his attention to this fable at that moment we cannot tell. Possibly the mention of it in Burton Anatomy may have set him on to reading the original source, the Golden Ass of Apuleius, in Adlington translation: there are passages in Lamia which suggest such a reading,(70)
Farewell! I yet have visions for the night,
And for the day faint visions there is store.
and the noble, rhythmical English of that Elizabethan version, loose as it may be in point of scholarship, could not fail to charm his ear. Or possibly recent study of the plates in the Musée Napoléon (as to which more by and by) may have brought freshly to his memory the sculptured group in which the story is embodied. But that he had always loved the story we know from the passage ‘I stood tip-toe’ beginning–
So felt he, who first told how Psyche went
On the smooth wind to realms of wonderment,
as well as from his confession that in boyhood he used to admire its languid and long-drawn romantic treatment in the poem of Mrs Tighe.
Cloying touches of languor, such as often disfigure his own earlier work, are not wanting in the opening lines in which he tells how he came upon the fabled couple in a dream, but are more than compensated by the charm of the scene where he finds them reposing, ‘Mid hush’d, cool-rooted flowers fragrant-eyed.’ What other poet has compressed into a single line so much of the essential virtue of flowers, of their power to minister to the spirit of man through all his senses at once? Such felicity in compound epithets is by this time habitual with Keats; and of Spenser with his ‘sea-shouldering whales’ he is now more than the equal. The ‘azure-lidded sleep’ of the maiden in St Agnes’ Eve is matched in this ode by the ‘soft-conchèd ear’ of Psyche,–though the compound is perhaps a little forced and odd, like the ‘cirque-couchant’ snake in Lamia. The invocation in the third and fourth stanzas expresses, with the fullest reach of Keats’s felicity in style and a singular freshness and fire of music in the verse, both his sense of the meaning of Greek nature / religion and his delight in imagining the beauty of its shrines and ritual. For the rest, there seems at first something strained in the turn of thought and expression whereby the poet offers himself and the homage of his own mind to the divinity he addresses, in lieu of the worship of antiquity for which she came too late; and especially in the terms of the metaphor which opens the famous fourth stanza:–
Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane
In some untrodden region of my mind,
Where branched thoughts, new-blown with pleasant pain,
Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind.
But in a moment we are carried beyond criticism by that incomparable distillation of one, or many, of his impressions among the Lakes or in Scotland,–
Far, far around shall those dark-cluster’d trees
Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep.
For such a master-stroke of concentrated imaginative description no praise, much as has been showered on it by Ruskin and lesser critics, can be too great.
Keats declares to his brother that this is the first of his poems with which he has taken even moderate pains. That being so, it is remarkable that he should have let stand in it as many as three unrimed line-endings: and what the poem truly bears in upon the reader is a sense less of special care and finish than of special glow and ardour, till he is left breathless and delighted at the threshold of the sanctuary prepared by the ‘gardener Fancy,’ his mind enthralled by the imagery and his ear by the verse, with its swift, mounting music and rich, vehemently iterated assonances towards the close:–
A rosey sanctuary will I dress
With the wreath’d trellis of a working brain,
With buds, and bells, and stars without a name,
With all the gardener Fancy e’er could feign,
With breeding flowers, will never breed the same;
And thither will I bring all soft delights
That shadowy thought can win,
A bright torch, and a casement ope at nights,
To let the warm Love in!
The four remaining spring odes are slower-paced, as becomes their more musing tenour, and are all written in a succession of stanzas repeated uniformly or with slight variations. Throughout them all each stanza is of ten lines and five rimes, the first and second rimes arranged in a quatrain, the third, fourth and fifth in a sestet: the order of rimes in the sestet varying in the different odes, and in one, the nightingale ode, the third line from the end being shortened so as to have three stresses instead of five.
Let us take first the two in which the imagery has been suggested to the poet by works of Greek sculpture whether seen or imagined. In the Ode on Indolence Keats merely revives his memory of a special type of Greek marble urn where draped figures of women, Seasons, it may be, or priestesses, walk with joined hands behind a solemn Bacchus, or priest in the god’s guise,–he merely evokes this memory in order to describe the way in which certain symbolic personages have seemed in a day-dream to pass before him and re-pass and again re-pass, appearing and disappearing as the embossed figures on such an urn may be made to do by turning it round. From the ‘man and two women’ of the March letter they are changed to three women, whom at first he does not recognize; but seeing presently who they are, namely Love, Ambition, and that ‘maiden most unmeek,’ his ‘demon Poesy,’ he for a moment longs for wings to follow and overtake them. The longing passes, and in his relaxed mood he feels that none of the three holds any joy for him–
so sweet as drowsy noons,
And evenings steep’d in honey’d indolence.
They come by once more, and again, barely aroused from the sweets of outdoor slumber and the spring afternoon, he will not so much as lift his head from where he lies, but bids them farewell and sees them depart without a tear.
Keats did not print this ode, thinking it perhaps not good enough or else too intimately personal. But writing to Miss Jeffrey a few weeks after it was composed, he tells her it is the thing he has most enjoyed writing this year. It is indeed a pleasant, lovingly meditated revival and casting into verse of the imagery which had come freshly into his mind when he wrote to his brother of his fit of languor in the previous March. It contains some powerful and many exquisite lines, but only one perfect stanza, the fifth: and there are slacknesses–shall we say lazinesses–in the execution, as where the need for rimes to ‘noons’ and ‘indolence’ prompts the all-too commonplace prayer–
That I may never know how change the moons,
Or hear the voice of busy common-sense;
Or where, thinking contemptuously of the old ‘intercoronation’ days with Leigh Hunt, he declines, in truly Cockney rime, to raise his head from the flowery grass in order to be fed with praise and become ‘a pet-lamb in a sentimental farce.’
In bidding the phantoms of this day-dream adieu, Keats avows that there are others yet haunting him, and while imagery drawn from the sculptures on Greek vases was still floating through his mind, he was able to rouse himself to a stronger effort and produce a true masterpiece in his famous Ode on a Grecian Urn. It is no single or actually existing specimen of Attic handicraft that he celebrates in this ode, but a composite conjured up instinctively in his mind out of several such known to him in reality or from engravings. During and after those hour-long silent reveries among the museum marbles of which Severn tells us, the creative spirit within him will have been busy almost unaware combining such images and re-combining them. Criticism can plausibly analyse this creation into its several elements. In calling the scene a ‘leaf-fringed legend’ Keats will have remembered that the necks and shoulders of this kind of urn are regularly encircled by bands of leaf-pattern ornament. The idea of a sacrifice and a Bacchic dance being figured together in one frieze, a thing scarcely elsewhere to be found, will have come to him from the well known vase of Sosibios (so called from the name of the sculptor inscribed upon it), from the print of which in the Musée Napoléon there actually exists a tracing by his hand.(71) But this is a serene and ceremonial composition: for the tumult and ‘wild ecstasy’ of his imagined frieze, the ‘pipes and timbrels,’ the ‘mad pursuit,’ he will have had store of visions ready in his mind, from the Bacchanal pictures of Poussin, no doubt also from Bacchic vases like that fine one in the Townley collection at the British Museum and the nearly allied Borghese vase: while for the
–heifer lowing at the skies
And all her silken flanks in garlands drest,
as well as for the thought of the pious morn and the little town emptied of its folk that old deep impression received from Claude “‘Sacrifice to Apollo'” will have been reinforced by others from works of sculpture easy to guess at: most of all, naturally, from the sacrificial processions in the Parthenon frieze.
In the ode we read how the sculptured forms of such an imaginary antique, visualized in full intensity before his mind’s eye, have set his thoughts to work, on the one hand asking himself what living, human scenes of ancient custom and worship lay behind them, and on the other hand speculating upon the abstract relations of plastic art to life. The opening invocation is followed by a string of questions which flash their own answer upon us–interrogatories which are at the same time pictures,–‘What men or gods are these, what maidens loth?’ etc. The second and third stanzas express with full felicity and insight the differences between life, which pays for its unique prerogative of reality by satiety and decay, and art, which in forfeiting reality gains in exchange permanence of beauty, and the power to charm by imagined experiences even richer than the real. The thought thrown by Leonardo da Vinci into a single line –‘Cosa bella mortal passa e non d’arte’–and expanded by Wordsworth in his later days into the sonnet, ‘Praised be the art,’ etc., finds here its most perfect utterance.
Ah, happy, happy boughs I that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Then the questioning begins again, and again conjures up a choice of pictures,–
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
In the answering lines of the sestet–
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return,–
in these lines we find that the poet’s imagination has suddenly and lightly shifted its ground, and chooses to view the arrest of life as though it were an infliction in the sphere of reality, and not merely, like the instances of such arrest given farther back, a necessary condition in the sphere of art, having in that sphere its own compensations. Finally, dropping such airy play of the mind backward and forward between the two spheres, he consigns the work of ancient skill to the future, to remain,–
in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–
thus re-asserting his old doctrine, ‘What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth’; a doctrine which amidst the gropings of reason and the flux of things is to the poet and artist–at least to one of Keats’s temper–the one anchorage to which his soul can and needs must cleave.
Let us turn now to the second pair–for as such I regard them–of odes written in May-time, those To a Nightingale and On Melancholy. Like the Ode on Indolence, the nightingale ode begins with the confession of a mood of ‘drowsy numbness,’ but this time one deeper and nearer to pain and heartache. Then invoking the nightingale, the poet attributes his mood not to envy of her song (perhaps, as Mr Bridges has suggested, there may be here an under-reminiscence from William Browne(72)), but to excess of happiness in it. Just as his Grecian urn was no single specimen of antiquity that he had seen, so it is not the particular nightingale he had heard singing in the Hampstead garden that Keats thus invokes, but a type of the race imagined as singing in some fax-off scene of woodland mystery and beauty. Thither he sighs to follow her: first by aid of the spell of some southern vintage–a spell which he makes us realize in lines redolent, as are none others in our language, of the southern richness and joy which he had never known save in dreams. Then follows a contrasted vision of all his own and mankind’s tribulations which he will leave behind him. Nay, he needs not the aid of Bacchus,–Poetry alone shall transport him. For a moment he mistrusts her power, but the next moment finds himself where he would be, listening to the imagined song in the imagined woodland, and divining in the darkness all the secrets of the season and the night. While thus rapt he remembers how often the thought of death has seemed welcome to him, and feels that it would be more richly welcome now than ever. The nightingale would not cease to sing–and by this time, though he calls her ‘immortal bird,’ what he has truly in mind is not the song-bird at all, but the bird-song, thought of as though it were a thing self-existing and apart, imperishable through the ages. So thinking, he contrasts its permanence with the transitoriness of human life, meaning the life of the generations of individual men and women who have listened to it. This last thought leads him off into the ages, whence he brings back those memorable touches of far-off Bible and legendary romance in the stanza closing with the words ‘in faery lands forlorn’: and then, catching up his own last word, ‘forlorn,’ with an abrupt change of mood and meaning, he returns to daily consciousness, and with the fading away of his forest dream the poem closes.
Throughout this ode Keats’s genius is at its height. Imagination cannot be more rich and satisfying, felicity of phrase and cadence cannot be more absolute, than in the several contrasted stanzas calling for the draft of southern vintage, picturing the frailty and wretchedness of man’s estate on earth, and conjecturing in the ’embalmèd darkness’ the divers odours of spring. To praise the art of a passage like that in the fourth stanza where with a light, lingering pause the mind is carried instantaneously away from the miseries of the world into the heart of the imagined forest,–to praise or comment on a stroke of art like this is to throw doubt on the reader’s power to perceive it for himself. Let him be trusted to cherish and know the poem, as every lover of English poetry should, ‘to its depths,’ and let us go on to the last product, as I take it to be, of this spring month of inspiration, and that is the Ode on Melancholy.
The music of the word–its hundred associations derived from the early seventeenth-century poetry in which his soul was steeped–foremost among them no doubt Milton L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, with the beautiful song from Fletcher Nice Valour which inspired them-his recent familiarity with Burton Anatomy, including those pithy stanzas of alternate praise and repudiation which preface it–all these things will have worked together with Keats’s own haunting and deepest mood throughout these days to set him composing on this theme, Melancholy. He had dallied with an idea of doing so as far back as early in March, when being kept from writing both by physical disinclination and a temporary phase of self-criticism, he had written to Haydon, ‘I will not spoil my gloom by writing an ode to Darkness.’ Now that in May the springs of inspiration were again unlocked in him, such negative purpose fails to hold, and he adds this ode to the rest, throwing into it some of his most splendid imagery and diction. Its temper is nearly akin on the one hand to some of the gloomier passages in his letters to Miss Jeffrey of May 31 and June 9, and on the other to the tragic third stanza of the nightingale ode. Its main purport is to proclaim the spiritual nearness, the all but inseparableness, of joy and pain in human experience when either is present in its intensity. One of the attributes, it will be remembered, which he assigns to his enchantress Lamia is–
a sciential brain
To unperplex bliss from its neighbour pain.
In no nature have the sources of the two lain deeper or closer together than in his own, and it is from the fullness of impassioned experience that he writes. The real melancholy, he insists, is not that which belongs to things sad or direful in themselves. Having written two stanzas piling up gruesome images of such things, and discarded on reflection the former and more gruesome of the two, he lets the second stand, and goes on, evoking contrasted images of opulent beauty, to show how the true, the utter melancholy is that which is inextricably coupled with every joy and resides at the heart of every pleasure: ending magnificently–
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veiled Melancholy has her sovereign shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
One more ode remains, written in a different key and after a lapse of some four months, during which Keats had been away in the country, quieted by absence from the object of his passion and working diligently at Otho the Great and Lamia. This is the ode To Autumn. He was alone at Winchester, rejoicing in perfect September weather and in a mood more serene and contented than he had known for long or was ever to know again. ‘How beautiful the season is now,’ he writes to Reynolds, ‘how fine the air–a temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather–Dian skies. I never liked stubble fields so much as now–aye, better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow, a stubble plain looks warm, in the same way that some pictures look warm. This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.’ The vein in which he composed is one of simple objectivity, very different from the passionate and complex phases of introspective thought and feeling which inspired the spring odes. The result is the most Greek thing, except the fragment To Maia, which Keats ever wrote. It opens up no such far-reaching avenues to the mind and soul of the reader as the odes To a Grecian Urn, To a Nightingale, or To Melancholy, but in execution is more complete and faultless than any of them. In the first stanza the bounty, in the last the pensiveness, of the time are expressed in words so transparent and direct that we almost forget they are words at all, and nature herself and the season seem speaking to us: while in the middle stanza the touches of literary art and Greek personification have an exquisite congruity and ease. Keats himself has hardly anywhere else written with so fine a subtlety of nature-observation. Students of form will notice a slight deviation from that of the spring odes, by which the second member of the stanza is now a septet instead of a sestet, one of its rimes being repeated three times instead of twice.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Had Keats been destined to know health and peace of mind, who can guess how much more work in this vein and of this quality the world might have owed to him?
56. Thoughts suggested on banks of Nith, near the poet’s residence: the third poem in Memorials of a Tour in Scotland.
57. First printed in Hunt Reflector and reprinted in the two-volume edition of Lamb’s works published in 1818.
58. A copy of Fairfax’s Tasso appears in the list of books left by Keats at his death.
59. This point has been made by Mr Buxton Forman, Complete Works of J. K.
60. I let this paragraph, somewhat officious and over-explanatory though it now seems to me, stand as I wrote it thirty years ago, for the sake of the pleasure I have since had in learning that the identical passage was singled out by Charles Lamb, in a notice which has only lately come to light as the pick of the whole Lamia volume.
61. That published by Allan Awnmarsh, 5th ed. 1684, notes Woodhouse; and a copy of the same is noted in the list of Keats’s books.
62. See article by H. Noble M’Cracken in Philological Journal of the Chicago University, Vol. 1908. The romance of Floire and Blancheflor, which Boccaccio in the Filocolo expands with additions and inventions of his own, tells the story of a Moorish prince in Spain and a Christian damsel, brought up together and loving each other as children and thrown apart in maturity by adverse influences and ill fortune. After many chivalric and fantastic adventures both in West and East, of the kind usual in such romances, judicial combats, captures by corsairs, warnings by a magic ring and the like, Floire learns that Blancheflor is immured with other ladies in an impregnable tower by the ‘Admiral of Babylon,’ who desires to marry her. To Babylon Floire follows, cajoles the guardian of the tower and one of her damsels to admit him to her chamber concealed in a basket of roses: whence issuing, he and she are brought to one another’s arms in happiness; various other adventures ensuing before they can be finally free and united. There exists a fragmentary English mediæval version of this romance, which might easily have been known to Keats from the abstract and quotations given by George Ellis in his Specimens of Early English Metrical Romance (1806). But unluckily neither this nor, apparently, any version of the original French romance poem contains those incidents recounted in the Filocolo to which Keats’s poem runs most closely parallel. These we must accordingly suppose Boccaccio’s own invention and to have been known to Keats, directly or indirectly, from the Filocolo itself.
63. In both the chapel monuments and the banquet-hall corbels there may be a memory of the passage from Cary’s Dante (quoted by Mr Buxton Forman and Prof. de Sélincourt).
64. It may be noted that in the corresponding scene in the Filocolo a single special colour effect is got by describing the room as lit up by two great pendent self-luminous carbuncles.
65. Paradise Lost.
66. Ed. 1860, pp. 269, 270.
67. The final couplet of this stanza, as Keats wrote it after several attempts, is weak. Madeline continues,–
Oh leave me not in this eternal woe,
For if thou diest, my love, I know not where to go.
In the alternative version, intended to leave no doubt of what had happened, which he read to Woodhouse and Woodhouse disapproved, Madeline’s speech breaks off and the poet in his own name adds,–
See while she speaks his arms encroaching slow
Have zon’d her, heart to heart,–loud, loud, the dark winds blow
68. Keats, mentally placing his story in England and writing it at Teignmouth, had at first turned this line otherwise,–‘For o’er the bleak Dartmoor I have a home for thee.’
69. A critic, not often so in error, has contended that the death of the beadsman and Angela in the concluding stanza are due to the exigencies of rime. On the contrary, they are foreseen from the first: that of the beadmnan in the lines,
But no–already had his death-bell rung;
The joys of all his life were said and sung;
that of Angela where she calls herself
A poor, weak, palsy-stricken, churchyard thing,
Whose passing bell may ere the midnight toll.
The touch of flippant realism which Keats had, again to Woodhouse’s distress, proposed to throw into his story at this point was as follows. For the four last lines of the last stanza Keats had proposed to write,–
Angela went off
Twitch’d with the palsy: and with face deform
The beadsman stiffen’d, ‘twixt a sigh and laugh
Ta’en sudden from his beads by one weak little cough.
In printing the poem Keats, probably at the instance of Taylor and Woodhouse, reverted to the earlier and better version.
70. May the following be counted evidence to the same effect? The old woman in Apuleius, chap. xxi, just as she is about to tell her daughter the story of Cupid and Psyche, says ‘as the visions of the day are accounted false and untrue, so the visions of the night do often chance contrary.’ Compare Keats at the end of the Ode on Indolence.
71. The Musée Napoléon is a set of four volumes illustrating with outline engravings the works of classic art collected by Napoleon Bonaporte as spoils of war and brought to Paris. Keats’s original tracing from the Sosibios vase was in the collection of Sir Charles Dilke and is reproduced on the frontispiece of the Clarendon Press edition of Keats poems, 1906. The subject has been much discussed, but only from the point of view of the classical archæologist, which ignores the part played by paintings as well as antiques in stimulating Keats’s imagination. From that point of view the nearest approach, as I hold, to a right solution is set out in a paper by Paul Wolters, in Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen, Band xx, Heft ½: Braunschweig; though I think he is too positive in ruling out Roman representations of the Suovetaurilia such as the line urn at Holland House suggested as Keats’s source by the late Mr A. S. Murray and reproduced in The Odes of Keats, by A. C. Downer, M.A. (Oxford, 1897).
72. Sweet Philomela (then he heard her sing)
I do not envy thy sweet carolling,
But do admire thee each even and morrow
Canst carelessly thus sing away thy sorrow.
Link/cite this page
If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.
Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "John Keats Life & Poetry by Sidney Colvin, 1917" https://englishhistory.net/keats/john-keats-life-poetry-sidney-colvin-1917/, February 22, 2015