WORK OF 1818, 1819 CONTINUED: THE FRAGMENTS AND EXPERIMENTS
Snatches expressive of moods–Ode to Maia–Hyperion: its scheme and scale–Sources: Homer and Hesiod–Pierre Ronsard–Miltonisms-Voices of the Titans–A match and no match for Milton–A great beginning–Question as to sequel–Difficulties and a suggestion–The scheme abandoned–The Eve of St Mark–Chaucer and Morris-Judgement of Rossetti–Dissent of W. B. Scott–The solution–Keats as dramatist–Otho and King Stephen–The Cap and Bells–Why a failure–Flashes of Beauty–Recast of Hyperion–Its leading ideas-Their history in Keats’s mind–Preamble: another feast of fruits-The sanctuary–The admonition–The monitress–The attempt breaks off.
Much of our clearest insight into Keats’s mind and genius is gained from the class of his fragments which do not represent any definite poetical purpose or plan, and were never meant to be more than mere snatches and momentary outpourings. Such, though they only express a passing mood, are the lines in his letter to Reynolds of February 1818, translating the early song of the thrush into a warning not to fret after knowledge. Such is the contrasted passage of shifting, perplexed meditation on the problems of life, and the failure of the imagination to solve them alone, in the rimed epistle to the same friend six weeks later. Such, very especially, is the cry declaring that the true poet is the soul sympathetic with every form and mode of life and ready to merge its identity in that of any and every sentient creature: compare the passage in one of his letters where he tells how his own can enter into that of a sparrow picking about the gravel:–
Where’s the Poet? show him! show him,
Muses nine! that I may know him.
‘Tis the man who with a man
Is an equal, be he King,
Or poorest of the beggar-clan,
Or any other wondrous thing
A man may be ‘twixt ape and Plato;
‘Tis the man who with a bird,
Wren, or Eagle, finds his way to
All its instincts; he hath heard
The Lion’s roaring, and can tell
What his horny throat expresseth,
And to him the Tiger’s yell
Comes articulate and presseth
On his ear like mother-tongue.
Such again are the several passages in which he expresses a mood that frequently beset him, that of being rapt in spirit too high above earth to breathe, too far above his body not to feel an awful intoxication and fear of coming madness:–
It is an awful mission,
A terrible division;
And leaves a gulph austere
To be fill’d with worldly fear.
Aye, when the soul is fled
Too high above our head,
Affrighted do we gaze
After its airy maze,
As doth a mother wild,
When her young infant child
Is in eagle’s claws–
And is not this the cause
Of madness?–God of Song,
Thou bearest me along
Through sights I scarce can bear;
O let me, let me share
With the hot lyre and thee,
The staid Philosophy.
Temper my lonely hours,
And let me see thy bowers
But our main business in this chapter must be not with illuminating snatches such as these, but with things begun of set purpose and not carried through.
When Keats, drawing near the end of his work on Endymion, was meditating what he meant to be his second long and arduous poem, Hyperion, he still thought and spoke of it as a ‘romance.’ But a phrase he uses elsewhere shows him conscious that its style would have to be more ‘naked and Grecian’ than that of Endymion. Was he trying an experiment in the naked and Grecian style when on May day 1818 he wrote at Teignmouth the beginning of an ode on Maia? He never went on with it, and the fragment as it stands is of fourteen lines only; but these are in a more truly Greek manner than anything else he wrote, not even excepting, as I have just said, the Ode to Autumn. The words figuring what Greek poets were and did for Greek communities, and expressing the aspiration to be even as they, bear the true, the classic, mint-mark of absolute economy and simplicity in absolute rightness. Considering how meagre are the hints antiquity has left us concerning Maia, the eldest of the Pleiades and mother of Hermes, and her late identification with the Roman divinity to whom sacrifice was paid on the first of May, and hence how little material for development the theme seems to offer,–considering these things, perhaps it is as well that Keats, despite his promise to finish it ‘all in good time,’ should have tantalized posterity by breaking off this beautiful thing where he did.
The next fragment we come to is colossal,–it is Hyperion itself. From the poem as far as it was written no reader could guess either that it was taken up as a ‘feverous relief’ from tendance on his dying brother, or that in continuing it later under Brown’s roof he had to put force upon himself against the intrusion of private cares and affections upon his thoughts, as well as against a reaction from his own mode of conceiving and handling the task itself. The impression Hyperion makes is one, as Woodhouse on first reading it justly noted, of serene mastery by the poet both over himself and over his art:–‘It has an air of calm grandeur about it which is indicative of true power’: and again,–‘the above lines give but a faint idea of the sustained grandeur and quiet power which characterize the poem.’ Woodhouse goes on to tell what he knew of the scheme of the work as Keats had first conceived it:–
The poem, if completed, would have treated of the dethronement of Hyperion, the former God of the Sun, by Apollo,–and incidentally of those of Oceanus by Neptune, of Saturn by Jupiter, etc., and of the war of the giants for Saturn’s reestablishment-with other events, of which we have but very dark hints in the mythological poets of Greece and Rome. In fact the incidents would have been pure creations of the Poet’s brain.
The statement inserted by the publishers at the head of the volume in which the poem appeared in 1820, that Hyperion was intended to be as long as Endymion, is probably also due to Woodhouse, their right-hand man ( Keats, we know, had nothing to do with it), and may represent what he had gathered in conversation to have been the poet’s original idea. Mr de Sèlincourt has shown grounds for inferring that when Keats came to actual grips with the subject he decided to treat it much more briefly and partially. Clearly the essential meaning of the story was for him symbolical; it meant the dethronement of an older and ruder worship by one more advanced and humane, in which ideas of ethics and of arts held a larger place beside ideas of nature and her brute powers. Into this story the poet plunges, not even in the middle but near the close. When his poem opens, the younger gods, the Olympians, have won their victory, and the Titans, all except Hyperion, are already overthrown. In their debate whether to fight again general despondency prevails, and only one of the fallen, Enceladus, strikes a note of defiance; so that it seems as if there were nothing left to tell except the coming defeat or abdication of Hyperion in favour of Apollo. Hyperion, it is true, has not yet spoken when we are called away from the council, and Keats might have made him side with Enceladus and rouse his brethren to a temporary renewal of the strife. Or leaving the Titans conquered, he might, as Woodhouse suggests, have gone on to narrate the second warfare, that waged against the Olympians not by them but later by the Giants in revolt. In either case we should have seen the poet try his hand, hitherto untested in such themes, on scenes of superhuman battle and violence.
Woodhouse is right at any rate in saying that the hints for handling the theme to be found in the ancient poets are few and uncertain, leaving a modern writer free to invent most of his incidents for himself. Beyond the bald notices in his classical dictionaries, Chapman Iliad would have given Keats a picture of the dethroned Saturn: Chapman’s Homer’s hymn to Apollo might have filled his imagination, even to overflowing, with visions of the youth of that god in Delos,–‘Chief isle of the embowered Cyclades’: Hesiod Theogony (which he had doubtless read in the translation of Pope’s butt and enemy, Thomas Cooke) would have taught him more, but very confusedly, about the warfare of Gods, Titans, and Giants in general, besides inspiring his vision of the den where the Titans lie vanquished; while he would have gleaned other stray matters from Sandys’s notes on certain passages of Ovid. As far as his beloved English poets are concerned, brief allusions occur in the Faerie Queene and in Paradise Lost, where Milton includes the fallen Titans among the rebel hosts that flock to the standard of Satan in hell. But I think the source freshest in his mind at the moment when he began to write is one which has not hitherto been suggested, the ode of the famous French Renaissance poet Ronsard to his friend Michel de l’Hôpital. We know by his translation of the sonnet Nature ornant Cassandre that Keats had the works of Ronsard in his hands–lent, it would seem, by Mr Taylor–exactly about this time. The ode in question, partly founded on Hesiod, partly on Horace,(73) own invention, relates the birth of the Muses, their training by their mother Mémoire (= Mnemosyne), their desire as young girls to visit their father Jupiter, their mother’s consent, their undersea journey to the palace of Oceanus where Jupiter is present at a high festival, their choral singing before him, first of the strife of Neptune and Pallas for the soil of Attica, and then of the battle of the gods and giants:–
Après sur la plus grosse corde
D’un bruit qui tonnait jusqu’aux cieux,
Le pouce des Muses accorde
L’assaut des Géants et des Dieux.
Keats, although he writes of the battle of the Gods not against the Giants but against the earlier Titans, yet when he rolls out rebel names like this,–
Cœus, and Gyges, and Briareus;
Typhon and Dolof, and Porphyrion
Were pent in regions of laborious breath
Dungeon’d in opaque elements,–
Keats, when he rolls out these rebel names, has surely been haunted by the strophes of Ronsard:–
Styx d’un noir halecret rempare
Ses bras, ses jambes, et son sein,
Sa fille amenant par la main
Contre Cotte, Gyge, et Briare.(74)
. . . . . .
Neptune à la fourche estofée
De trois crampons vint se mesler
Par la troupe contre Typhée
Qui rouoit une fonde en l’air:
Ici Phoebus d’un trait qu’il jette
Fit Encelade trébucher,
Là Porphyre lui fit broncher
Hors des poings l’arc et la sagette.
For such an epic theme Keats felt instinctively, when he set to work, that an epic and not a romance treatment was necessary; and for that English poet the obvious epic model is Milton. Ever since his visit to Bailey at Oxford, and especially during his stay at Teignmouth the next year, Keats had been absorbing Milton and taking him into his being, as formerly he had taken Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, and now he can utter his own thoughts and imaginations almost with Milton’s voice. Speaking generally of the blank verse of Hyperion, its rhythms are almost as full and sonorous as Milton’s own, but simpler; its march more straightforward, with less of what De Quincey calls ‘solemn planetary wheelings’; its periods do not sweep through such complex evolutions to so stately and far foreseen a close. The Miltonisms in Hyperion are rather matters of diction and construction–construction almost always derived from the Latin–than of rhythm: sometimes also they are matters of direct verbal echo and reminiscence. To take a single instance out of many:–
For as among us mortals omens drear Fright and perplex, so also shuddered he.
It is only in Hyperion that Keats habitually thus puts the noun Latin-wise before the adjective: and the omens that ‘perplex’ are derived from the eclipse which in Paradise Lost ‘with fear of change Perplexes monarchs.’ Throughout the fragment Keats uses frequently and with fine effect the Miltonic figure of the ‘turn’ or rhetorical iteration of identical words to a fresh purport, as in that noble phrase which seems to have inspired one of the finest passages in Shelley Defence of Poesy (75):
How beautiful, if Sorrow had not made Sorrow more beautiful than Beauty’s self.
It has been said, and justly, that Keats has done nothing greater than the debate of the fallen Titans in their cave of exile, modelled frankly in its main outlines on that of the rebel angels in Paradise Lost, but with the personages and utterances nevertheless entirely his own. In creating and animating these colossal figures between the elemental and the human, what masterly imaginative instinct does he show–to take
one point only–in the choice of similitudes, drawn from the vast inarticulate sounds of nature, by which he seeks to make us realise their voices. Thus of the murmuring of the assembled gods when Saturn is about to speak:–
There is a roaring in the bleak-grown pines
When Winter lifts his voice; there is a noise
Among immortals when a God gives sign,
With hushing finger, how he means to load
His tongue with the full weight of utterless thought,
With thunder, and with music, and with pomp:
Such noise is like the roar of bleak-grown pines.
This is not a whit the less Keats for his use of the Miltonic ‘turn’ in rounding the period by a repetition in the last line of the ‘bleak-grown pines’ from the first. Again, of Oceanus answering his fallen chief:–
So ended Saturn; and the God of the Sea,
Sophist and sage, from no Athenian grove,
But cogitation in his watery shades,
Arose, with locks not oozy, and began,
In murmurs, which his first-endeavouring tongue
Caught infant-like from the far-foamed sands.
Here the affirmation by negation in the second and fourth lines is a Latin usage already employed by Keats in the Pot of Basil (76): the ‘locks not oozy’ are a reminiscence from Lycidas and the ‘first-endeavouring tongue’ from The Vacation Exercise. But into what a vitally apt and beautiful new music of his own has Keats moulded and converted all such echoes. Once more, of Clymene following Enceladus in debate:–
So far her voice flow’d on, like timorous brook
That, lingering along a pebbled coast,
Doth fear to meet the sea: but sea it met,
And shudder’d; for the overwhelming voice
Of huge Enceladus swallow’d it in wrath:
The ponderous syllables, like sullen waves
In the half-glutted hollows of reef-rocks,
Came booming thus.
In this last example the sublimity owes nothing to Milton except in the single case of the repetition in the third line. Even the scoffing Byron recognized after Keats’s death the authentic ‘large utterance of the early gods’ in passages like these, though Keats in his modesty had himself refused to recognize it.
Further to compare Keats with Milton,–the poet of Hyperion is naturally no match for Milton in passages where the elder master has been inspired by life-long impassioned meditation on his readings of history and romance, like that famous one ending with
In fable or romance of Uther’s son
Begirt with British and Armoric knights
Or all who since, baptized or infidel
Jousted in Aspramont or Montalban,
Damasco, or Marocco, or Trebizond,
Or whom Biserta sent from Afric shore
When Charlemain with all his peerage fell
On the other hand Milton, even in the sweetness and the nearness to nature of Comus and his other early work, is scarce a match for Keats when it comes to the evocation, even in a mode relatively simple, of nature’s secret sources of delight,–as thus:
throughout all the isle
There was no covert, no retired cave
Unhaunted by the murmurous noise of waves
Though scarcely heard in many a green recess:
while comparison is scarcely possible in the case of the nature images most characteristically Keats’s own, for instance:–
As when, upon a tranced summer night,
Those green-robed senators of mighty woods,
Tall oaks, branch-charmed by the earnest stars,
Dream, and so dream all night without a stir–.
Neither to the Greek nor the Miltonic, but essentially to the modern, the romantic, sentiment of nature does it belong to try and express, by such a concourse of metaphors and epithets, every effect at once, to the most fugitive, which a forest scene by starlight can have upon the mind: the preeminence of the oaks among the other trees–their quasi-human venerableness–their verdure, unseen in the darkness–the sense of their preternatural stillness and suspended life in an atmosphere that seems to vibrate with mysterious influences communicated between earth and sky.
All good poems, it has been said, begin well. None begins better than Hyperion, with its ‘Deep in the shady sadness of a vale,’ and its grand mournful dialogue between the discrowned Saturn and the Titaness Thea, his would-be comforter. Then, with a rich contrast from this scene of despondency, comes the scene, dazzling and resplendent for all its ominousness, of the mingled wrath and terror of the threatened sun-god in his flaming palace. The second book, relating the council of the dethroned Titans, has neither the contrasted sublimities of the first nor the intensity, rising almost to fever-point, of the unfinished third, where we leave Apollo undergoing a convulsive change under the afflatus of Mnemosyne, and about to put on the full powers of his godhead. But it has a rightness and controlled power of its own which place it, to my mind, fully on a level with the other two. And it is in this book, in the speech of Oceanus, that Keats sets forth the whole symbolical purport and meaning of the myth as he had conceived it:–
Now comes the pain of truth, to whom ’tis pain;
O folly I for to bear all naked truths,
And to envisage circumstance, all calm,
That is the top of sovereignty. Mark well!
As Heaven and Earth are fairer, fairer far
Than Chaos and blank Darkness, though once chiefs;
And as we show beyond that Heaven and Earth
In form and shape compact and beautiful,
In will, in action free, companionship,
And thousand other signs of purer life;
So on our heels a fresh perfection treads,
A power more strong in beauty, born of us
And fated to excel us, as we pass
In glory that old Darkness: nor are we
Thereby more conquer’d, than by us the rule
Of shapeless Chaos. Say, doth the dull soil
Quarrel with the proud forests it hath fed,
And feedeth still, more comely than itself?
Can it deny the chiefdom of green groves?
Or shall the tree be envious of the dove
Because it cooeth, and hath snowy wings
To wander wherewithal and find its joys?
We are such forest-trees, and our fair boughs
Have bred forth, not pale solitary doves,
But eagles golden-feather’d, who do tower
Above us in their beauty, and must reign
In right thereof; for ’tis the eternal law
That first in beauty should be first in might:
That difficulty, to which we have referred, of surmising how there could have remained material to fill out a poem on the Titanomachia which had begun with the Titans, all but one, dethroned already, seems to increase when we consider the above speech of Oceanus, setting forth with resigned prophetic wisdom the fated necessity of their fall. It increases still further when Clymene, following on the same side as Oceanus, tells how she has heard the strains of a new and ravishing music from the lyre of Apollo which have made her cast away in despair the instrument of her own formless music, the seashell; and still further again when in the next book we witness the meeting of Apollo with the Titaness Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses, who for his sake has ‘forsaken old and sacred thrones,’ and when we hear him proclaim how in the inspiration of her presence,
Knowledge enormous makes a God of me.
Names, deeds, grey legends, dire events, rebellions,
Majesties, sovran voices, agonies,
Creations and destroyings, all at once
Pour into the wide hollows of my brain,
And deify me, as if some blithe wine
Or bright elixir peerless I had drunk,
And so become immortal.
Before the glory of this new-deified Apollo, what could long have delayed the defeat or abdication of the elder sun-god Hyperion?–what could have remained for Keats to invent that should have much enriched or lengthened out his poem? The sense of the difficulty of sustaining the battle of the primeval powers against these new and nobler successors may well have been one of the things (even had he not had Milton’s comparative failure with the warfare in heaven to warn him) that hindered his going on with his poem. To the reader there occurs another and even greater difficulty: and that is that Keats had already given to his fallen elder gods or Titans so much not only of majesty but of nobleness and goodness that it is hard to see wherein he could have shown their successors excelling them. He had represented Saturn as wroth, indeed, at his downfall, but chiefly because it leaves him
And buried from all godlike exercise
Of influence benign on planets pale,
Of admonition to the winds and seas,
Of peaceful sway above man’s harvesting,
And all those acts which Deity supreme
Doth ease its heart of love in.
Increase of knowledge, of skill in the arts of life and of beauty, the gods of the new dynasty might indeed extend to mankind, but what increase of love and beneficence? Even the relations of Saturn to his father Coelus (the Greek Uranus), which in the ancient cosmogony are of the crudest barbarity, Keats in Hyperion makes benignant and sympathetic.
Such inherent difficulties as these might well have made Keats diffident of his power to complete his poem as a rounded or satisfying whole had its intended scope been what we are told. But I am sometimes tempted to conjecture that his root idea had been other than what his friends attributed to him,–that battle, and the victory of the Olympians over the Titans or Giants or both, would not in fact have been his main theme, but that he intended to present to us Apollo, enthroned after the abdication of Hyperion, in the character of a prophet and to have put into his mouth revelations of things to come, a great monitory vision of the world’s future. To such a supposition some colour is surely lent by the speech of Apollo above quoted on the ‘knowledge enormous’ just poured into his brain by Mnemosyne. On the other hand it has to be remembered that Keats himself, in a forecast of his work made ten months before it was written, shows clearly that he then meant his Apollo to be above all things a god of action.
Keats himself, writing some eight months later, when he had finally decided to give up his epic attempt, cites as his chief reason a re-action of his critical judgment against the Miltonic style, at least as a style suitable for him, Keats, to work in:–
I have given up Hyperion–there were too many Miltonic
inversions in it–Miltonic verse cannot be written but in an
artful, or rather, artist’s humour. I wish to give myself up to
other sensations. English ought to be kept up. It may be
interesting to you to pick out some lines from Hyperion, and put
a mark* to the false beauty proceeding from art, and one to the
true voice of feeling. Upon my soul ’twas imagination–I cannot
make the distinction–Every now and then there is a Miltonic
intonation–But I cannot make the division properly.
And again: ‘I have but lately stood on my guard against Milton. Life to him would be death to me. Miltonic verse cannot be written, but is the verse of art. I wish to devote myself to another verse alone.’ This re-action was certainly not fully conscious or formulated in Keats’s mind by the previous winter. But it would seem none the less to have been working in him instinctively: for the moment he had turned, in The Eve of St Agnes, to a romance in the flowing, straightforward, Spenserian-Chattertonian manner of narration, he had been able to carry his task through with felicity and ease.
This was on his excursion to Hampshire in the latter half of January. Within three weeks of his return he was at work again on a kindred theme of popular and traditional belief, The Eve of St Mark. The belief was that a person standing in the church porch of any town or village on the evening before St Mark’s day (April 24th) might thereby gain a vision of all the inhabitants fated to die or fall grievously sick within the year. Those destined to die would be seen passing in but not returning, those who were to be in peril and recover would go in and after a while come out. The heroine of the poem, to whom this vision would appear, was to be a maiden of Canterbury named Bertha, no doubt after the first Christian queen of Kent, the Frankish wife of Ethelbert; the scene, Canterbury itself, memories of the poet’s stay there in 1817 mingling apparently with impressions of his recent visit to Chichester. Keats never got on with this poem after his first three or four days’ work ( February 14th-17th, 1819), and it remains a mere fragment, tantalizing and singular, of a hundred and twenty lines’ length. Why? Perhaps merely because it was begun almost at the very hour when he became the accepted lover of Fanny Brawne. We have seen how various causes, but chiefly the obsession of that passion, paralysed his power of work for the next two months, and what were the thoughts and tasks that held him fully occupied afterwards. It has been suggested by the late Dante Gabriel Rossetti that Keats meant to give the story a turn applicable to himself and his mistress, and that the present fragment would have served as the opening of a poem which afterwards, in sickness, he mentioned to her as being in his mind:-‘I would show some one in love, as I am, with a person living in such Liberty as you do.’ I can find no sure evidence, internal or external, either to refute the suggestion or confirm it.
The fragment of The Eve of St Mark is Keats’s only attempt at narrative writing in the eight-syllabled fourstress couplet. Its pace and movement are nearer to Chaucer in The Romaunt of the Rose or The House of Fame than to Coleridge or Scott or any other model of Keats’s own time. That he was writing with Chaucer in his mind is proved by some lines in which he tries in Rowley fashion to reproduce Chaucer’s actual style and vocabulary, thus:–
Gif ye wol stonden hardie wight–
Amiddes of the blacke night–
Righte in the churche porch, pardie
Ye wol behold a companie
Approchen thee full dolourouse
For sooth to sain from everich house
Be it in city or village
Wol come the Phantom and image
Of ilka gent and ilka carle
Who coldè Deathè hath in parle
And wol some day that very year
Touchen with foulè venime spear
And sadly do them all to die–
Hem all shalt thou see verilie–
And everichon shall by thee pass
All who must die that year, Alas.
These lines give us a sure key to the main motive of the story which was to follow. With some others in the same style, they are quoted by the poet as composing a gloss written in minute script on the margin of a wonderful illuminated book over which the damsel is found poring and which is to have some mysterious influence on her destiny. More noticeable and interesting than their somewhat random Rowleyism is the way in which some of the descriptive lines in the body of the poem anticipate the very cadences of Chaucer’s great latterday disciple, William Morris. The first eight or ten lines of the following might have come straight from The Man born to be King or The Land East of the Sun, and provide, as it were, in the history of our poetry a direct stepping-stone between Chaucer and Morris:–
The city streets were clean and fair
From wholesome drench of April rains;
And, on the western window panes,
The chilly sunset faintly told
Of unmatur’d green vallies cold,
Of the green thorny bloomless hedge,
Of rivers new with spring-tide sedge,
Of primroses by shelter’d rills,
And daisies on the aguish hills.
Twice holy was the Sabbath-bell:
The silent streets were crowded well
With staid and pious companies,
Warm from their fire-side orat’ries;
And moving, with demurest air,
To even-song, and vesper prayer.
Each arched porch, and entry low,
Was fill’d with patient folk and slow,
With whispers hush, and shuffling feet,
While play’d the organ loud and sweet.
The relation of this fragment to the Pre-Raphaelites of the mid nineteenth century and their work is altogether curious and interesting. It was natural that it should appeal to them by the pure and living freshness of English nature-description with which it opens, by the perfectly imagined scene of hushed movement in the twilight streets that follows, perhaps most of all by the insistent delight in vivid colour, and in minuteness of animated and suggestive detail, which marks the final indoor scene of the maiden Bertha over her book by firelight. But what is strange is that Rossetti should not only have coupled the fragment with La Belle Dame sans Merci as ‘the chastest and choicest example of Keats’s maturing manner,’ an opinion which may well pass, but that he should have claimed it as showing ‘astonishingly real mediævalism for one not bred an artist,’ and even as the finest picture of the Middle Age period ever done. The truth is that the description of the Sabbath streets and the maiden’s chamber are not mediæval at all and probably not intended to be, while the one thing so intended, the illuminated manuscript from which she reads, is a quite impossible invention jumbling fantastically together things that never could have figured in the same manuscript, things from the Golden Legend, from the book of Exodus, the book of Revelation, with others from no possible manuscript source at all. Keats evidently took some interest in mediæval illuminations, for in speculating on the old skulls of supposed monks at Beauly Abbey he had apostrophized one of them,–
Poor Skull, thy fingers set ablaze
With silver saint in golden rays,
The holy Missal: thou didst craze
Mid bead and spangle,
While others pass’d their idle days
In coil and wrangle.
But he can have seen few and made no study of them, and his imagined mystically illuminated book in The Eve of St Mark is invented with no such fine instinctive tact or likelihood as his imagined Grecian urn of the ode.
An elder member of the Rossetti circle, that shrewd and caustic, very originally minded if only half accomplished Scottish poet and painter, William Bell Scott, was much exercised over his friend’s misconception in this matter. I will give his comment, certainly in some points just, as written to me in 1885. ‘On reading the fragment it seems to me impossible to resist the conclusion that the scene represented is of the present day. The dull and quiet Sunday evening represented is of our time in any cathedral town in England, not the Sunday evening of old when morning Mass was the religious observance, and the evening was spent in longbow and popinjay games and practice. The weary girl sits at a coal fire with a screen behind her, a Japanese screen apparently,’ [Japanese or old English lacquer imitating Oriental the screen certainly is]. ‘Every item of the description is modern. But alas! what shall we say to the ancient illuminated MS. she has in hand, with the pictures of early martyrs dying by fire, the Inquisition punishment of heretics, and the writing annotated, the notes referred to modern printers’ signs? As he describes a mediæval MS. book so badly, it may be said he intended the scene of the poem to be mediæval, but did the description also so badly. But no, the description of the dreariness of Sunday evening, utterly silent but for the passing of the people going to evening sermon, is admirable.’ By ‘badly’ my old friend meant inexactly. But Keats never was nor tried to be exact in his antiquarianism. If we take The Eve of St Agnes as intended to be a faithful picture from the Middle Ages, it simply goes to pieces in the line–
And the long carpets rose along the gusty floor.
Probably neither The Eve of St Agnes nor St Mark’s Eve was dated with any definiteness in the poet’s mind at all. A reference he makes to the last-named piece in a letter from Winchester the following autumn lends no definite support either to the modern or the mediæval interpretation:–‘Some time since I began a poem called The Eve of St Mark, quite in the spirit of town quietude. I think it will give you the sensation of walking about an old country town on a coolish evening.’ The impression of mediævalism which the two poems convey is not by any evidence of antiquarian knowledge or accuracy but by the intense spirit of romance that is in them,–by that impassioned delight in vivid colour and beautiful, imaginative detail which we have noted.
After his four days’ start on this poem in February came the spell of two months’ idleness which towards its close yielded La Belle Dame sans Merci and came to an end with the Ode to Psyche, followed in the course of May by the four other odes. The choral Song of the Four Fairies, for some inchoate opera, sent by Keats to his brother together with La Belle Dame, is not worth pausing upon, and we may pass to Keats’s main work of the ensuing July and August, Otho the Great. This is no fragment, having been duly finished to the last scene of the last act; but it is very much of an experiment. The question whether Keats, had he lived, might have become a great dramatic poet and creator is one of the most interesting possible. His intense and growing interest in humankind, together with his recorded and avowed liability to receive (‘like putty,’ as modern criticism has conjectured of Shakespeare) the impression of any character he might come in contact with, has led many students to believe that he had in him the stuff of a great creative playwright. Otho the Great does nothing to solve the question. The plot and construction, as we have said, were entirely Brown’s, building with quite arbitrary freedom on certain bald historical facts of the rebellion raised against Otho, in the course of his Hungarian wars, by his son Ludolf and the Red Duke Conrad of Lorraine, whom the emperor subsequently forgave. Creation demands foreknowledge, premeditation on the characters you desire to create and the situations in which they are to be placed, and Keats, Brown tells us, only foreknew what was coming in any scene after they had sat down at the table to work on it. His business was to supply the words, and what the result shows is only the surprising facility with which he could by this time improvise poetry to order. The speeches in Otho are much more than passably poetical, they are often quite brilliant and touched with Keats’s unique genius for felicity in lines and phrases. But they affect us as put into the mouths of puppet speakers, not as coming out of the hearts and passions of men and women.
In rhythm they are vital and varied enough, in style extremely high-pitched, and they resemble much Elizabethan work of the second order in smothering action and passion under a redundance and feverish excess of poetry. There is violence amounting to hysteria alike in the villainy of Conrad and of his sister Auranthe, the remorse of Albert, and the mixture of filial devotion and lover’s blindness in Ludolf, with his vengeful frenzy when he finds how he has been gulled. Keats, it is recorded, had in his eye the special gift of Edmund Kean for enacting frantic extremes and longdrawn agonies of passion; and it is possible that as played by him the last act, of which Keats took the conduct as well as the writing into his own hands, might have proved effective on the stage. It shows the maddened Conrad bent on executing vengeance on the traitress Auranthe, and insanely stabbing empty air while he imagines he is stabbing his victim, until curtains drawn aside disclose an inner apartment where she has at the very moment fallen self-slain. But it is doubtful whether any acting could carry off a plot so ultra-romantically extravagant and in places so obscure, or characters so incommensurably more eloquent than they are alive. Nor do lovers of Keats commonly care to read the play twice, for all its bursts and coruscations of fine poetry, feeling that these do not spring from the poet’s own inner self and imagination, but are rather as fireworks fitted by a man of genius on to a frame which another man, barely of talent, has put together.
The case is different when we come to King Stephen, the brief dramatic fragment on which Keats wrought alone after Otho the Great was finished. This teaches us one thing at any rate about Keats, that he could at will call away his imagination from matters luxurious or refreshing to the spirit, from themes broodingly meditative or tragically tender, to deal in a manner of fiery energy with the clash of war. He is still enough a child of the Renaissance to make his twelfth-century knights and princes quote Homer in their taunts and counter-taunts; but in the three-and-a-half scenes which he wrote he makes us feel his Stephen, defiant in defeat, a real elemental force and not a mere mouther of valiant rhetoric, fine and concentrated as the rhetoric sometimes is, as for instance when an enemy taunts him with being disarmed and helpless and he cries back, ‘What weapons has the lion but himself?’
In persuading Keats to work with him on a tragedy for the stage, Brown had had the entirely laudable motive of putting his friend in the way of earning money for them both. But what would we not have given that the time and labour thus, as it turned out, thrown away should have yielded us from Keats’s self another Isabella or Eve of St Agnes, or a finished Eve of St Mark, or even another Lamia? Brown’s next piece of suggestion and would-be help was far more unfortunate still. We have seen how in the unhappy weeks after Keats’s return from Winchester in October, he spent his mornings in Brown’s company spinning the verses of a comic and satiric fairy tale the scheme of which they had concocted together,–The Cap and Bells or The Jealousies. The idea of the friends in this was no doubt to throw a challenge to Byron, the first cantos of whose Don Juan had lately been launched upon a dazzled and scandalised world. Byron’s genius, the spirit, that is, of brilliant devilry and worldly mockery which was the sincerest part of his genius, with his rich experiences of life, travel and society, of passion and dissipation and the extremes of fame and obloquy, and his incomparable address and versatility in playing tricks of legerdemain with ideas and language, had here all found their perfect opportunity for display. Attempts at worldly banter and satire by the tender-hearted, intensely loving and imagining Keats, with his narrow and in the main rather second-rate social experience, were never more than wry-mouthed as I have called them, ineffectual, and essentially against the grain.
His collaborator Brown imagined he had a gift for satiric fairy tales, but his recorded efforts in that kind are silly and dull as well as inclining to coarseness. What happier result could be expected from their new joint work than that which posterity deplores in The Cap and Bells? The story is of an Indian Faery emperor Elfinan,–a name suggested by Spenser,–enamoured of an English maiden Bertha Pearl,–the very Bertha of The Eve of St Mark, resuscitated to our amazement,-but having for political reasons to seek in marriage a Faery princess Bellanaine, who herself is in love with an English youth named Hubert. The eighty-eight stanzas which Keats wrote on those autumn mornings in Brown’s room carry the tale no farther than Elfinan’s despatching his chancellor Crafticanto on an embassy to fetch Bellanaine on an aerial journey from her home in Imaus, his consultation with his magician Hum as to the means of escaping the marriage and conveying himself secretly to England, his departure, and the arrival of Bellanaine and her escort to find the palace empty and the emperor flown. How the seriously, perhaps tragically, conceived Bertha of St Mark’s Eve, with the mystic book fated to have influence on her life, could have been worked, as they were evidently meant to be worked, into this new ridiculous narrative, we cannot guess, nor how the relations of Bellanaine with her mortal lover would have been managed.
Before Keats’s deepening despondency and recklessness caused him to drop writing altogether, which apparently happened early in December, he was evidently out of conceit with The Cap and Bells.(77) One of the most unfortunate things about the attempt is the choice of the Spenserian stanza for its metre. Keats had probably wished to avoid seeming merely to imitate Byron, as he might have seemed to do had he written in the ottava rima of Don Juan, the one perfectly fit measure for such a blend of fantasy and satire as he was attempting. But not even Keats’s power over the Spenserian stanza could make it a fit vehicle for his purpose. Thomson and Shenstone had used it in work of mild and leisurely playfulness, but to bite in satire or sting in epigram it cannot effectively be bent. To my sense the precedent most in Keats’s mind was not these, but the before-mentioned translation of Wieland Oberon by Sotheby. Sotheby had invented a modified form of the Spenserian stanza riming abbaccddc instead of abcbbdbdd and keeping the final alexandrine. Much of the machinery and spirit of The Cap and Bells–the magic journeys through the air–the comic atmosphere and adventures of the courts–are closely akin to the jocular parts of this Oberon. Some of the passages of mere fun and playfulness are pleasant enough, like that description of a dilapidated hackney coach (much resembling the four-wheeler of our youth) which Hunt selected to publish in the Indicator while Keats was lying sick in his house the next year: but the attempts at social satire are almost always feeble and tiresome, and still more so those at political satire, turning for the most part rather obscurely on the scandals, then at their height, attending the relations of the Prince and Princess of Wales. In the faery narrative itself there break forth momentary flashes from the true genius of the poet, such as might delight the reader if he could lose his sense of irritation at the rubbish from amidst which they gleam. As thus, of the princess’s flight through the air (was Keats thinking, in the first line, of the children carried heavenward by angels in Orcagna Triumph of Death?)
As in old pictures tender cherubim
A child’s soul thro’ the sapphir’d canvas bear,
So, thro’ a real heaven, on they swim
With the sweet princess on her plumag’d lair,
Speed giving to the winds her lustrous hair.
Or this, telling how Bertha of Canterbury, in Keats’s queer new conception of her, was really a changeling born in the jungle:–
She is a changeling of my management;
She was born at midnight in an Indian wild;
Her mother’s screams with the striped tiger’s blent,
While the torch-bearing slaves a halloo sent
Into the jungles.
Or again, some of the stanzas describing the welcome prepared in Elfinan’s capital for the faery princess after her flight: note in the last the persistence with which Keats carries into these incongruous climates his passion for the English spring flowers:–
The morn is full of holiday; loud bells
With rival clamours ring from every spire;
Cunningly-station’d music dies and swells
In echoing places; when the winds respire,
Light flags stream out like gauzy tongues of fire;
A metropolitan murmur, lifeful, warm,
Comes from the northern suburbs; rich attire Freckles with red and gold the moving swarm;
While here and there clear trumpets blow a keen alarm.
As flowers turn their faces to the sun,
So on our flight with hungry eyes they gaze,
And, as we shap’d our course, this, that way run,
With mad-cap pleasure, or hand-clasp’d amaze;
Sweet in the air a mild-ton’d music plays,
And progresses through its own labyrinth;
Buds gather’d from the green spring’s middle-days,
They scatter’d,–daisy, primrose, hyacinth,–
Or round white columns wreath’d from capital to plinth.
After his mornings spent in Brown’s company over the strained frivolities of The Cap and Bells, Keats was in the same weeks striving, alone with himself of an evening, to utter the new thoughts on life and poetry which he found taking shape in the depths of his being. He took up again the abandoned Hyperion, and began rewriting it no longer as a direct narrative, but as a vision shewn and interpreted by a supernatural monitress acting to him somewhat the same part as Virgil acts to Dante. In altering the form and structure of the poem Keats also takes pains to alter its style, deMiltonizing and de-latinizing, sometimes terribly to their disadvantage, the passages which he takes over from the earlier version. It is not in these, it is in the two hundred and seventy lines of its wholly new preamble or introduction that the value of the altered poem lies.
The reader remembers how Keats had broken off his work on the original Hyperion at the point where Mnemosyne, goddess of Memory and mother of the Muses, is enkindling the brain of Apollo by mysteriously imparting to him her ancient wisdom and all-embracing knowledge. Following a clue which he had found in a Latin book of mythology he had lately bought,(78) he now identifies this Greek Mnemosyne with the Roman Moneta, goddess of warning or admonition; and being possibly also aware that the temple of Juno Moneta on the Capitol at Rome was not far from that of Saturn, makes his Mnemosyne-Moneta the priestess and guardian of Saturn’s temple. His vision takes him first into a grove or garden of trees and flowers and fountains, with a feast of summer fruits spread on the moss before an embowered arbour. The events that follow, and the converse held between the poet and the priestess, are in their ethical and allegoric meanings at many points obscure, and capable, like all symbols that are truly symbolic, of various interpretations. But the leading ideas they embody can be recognised clearly enough.
They are primarily the same ideas, developed in a deeper and more sombre spirit, as had been present in Keats’s mind almost from the beginning: the idea that in the simple delights of nature and of art as unreflectingly felt in youth there is no abiding place for the poetic spirit, that from the enjoyment of such delights it must rise to thoughts higher and more austere and prompting to more arduous tasks: the further idea that to fit it for such tasks two things above all are necessary, growth in human sympathy through the putting down of self, and growth in knowledge and wisdom through strenuous study and meditation. Such ideas had already been thrown out by Keats in Sleep and Poetry; they had been developed with much more fullness, though in a manner made obscure from redundance of imagery, in Endymion, especially in the third book: they had been expressed with a difference under the new and clearer symbolism of the Two Chambers of Thought in Keats’s letter to Reynolds from Teignmouth. About the same hour, the hour, as I think, of the finest achievement of Keats’s genius as well as of its highest promise,–there had appeared in his letters and some of his verses the quite new idea, which would have been inconceivable to him a year earlier, of questioning whether poetry was a worthy pursuit at all in a world full of pain and destruction. Musing beside the sea on a calm evening of April, he anticipates the Tennysonian vision of ‘nature, red in tooth and claw With ravine.’ In letters written during the next few weeks he insists over and over again alike upon the acuteness of his new sense that the world is ‘full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and Oppression,’ and upon the poet’s need of knowledge, and again knowledge, and ever more knowledge, to take away the heat and fever and ease ‘the Burden of the Mystery.’ The first passage that shows the dawn of a desire in his mind to do good to a suffering world by means possibly other than his art is that well-known and deeply significant one:–
I find earlier days are gone by–I find that I can have no enjoyment in the world but continual drinking of knowledge. I find there is no worthy pursuit but the idea of doing some good to the world. Some do it with their society–some with their wit–some with their benevolence–some with a sort of power of conferring pleasure and good humour on all they meet–and in a thousand ways, all dutiful to the command of great Nature –there is but one way for me. The road lies through application, study, and thought. I will pursue it.
The next time he expresses such an idea, it comes struck from him in a darker mood and in phrases of greater poignancy:–‘were it in my choice, I would reject a Petrarcal coronation,–on account of my dying day, and because women have cancers . . . I am never alone without rejoicing that there is such a thing as death–without placing my ultimate in the glory of dying for a great human purpose.’
The pressure of the sense of human misery, the hunger of the soul for knowledge and vision to lighten it, though they naturally do not colour his impersonal work of the next year and a half, nevertheless set their mark, the former strain in especial, upon his most deeply felt meditative verse, as in the odes to the Nightingale and the Grecian Urn, and reappear occasionally in his private confessions to his friends. Now, after intense experience both of personal sorrow and of poetic toil, and under the strain of incipient disease and consuming passion, it is borne in upon his solitary hours that such poetry as he has written, the irresponsible poetry of beauty and romance, has been mere idle dreaming, a refuge of the spirit from its prime duty of sharing and striving to alleviate the troubles of the world. It seems to him that every ordinary man and woman is worth more to mankind than such a dreamer. If poetry is to be worth anything to the world, it must be a different kind of poetry from this: the true poet is something the very opposite of the mere dreamer: he is one who has prepared himself through self-renunciation and arduous effort and extreme probation of the spirit to receive and impart the highest wisdom, the wisdom that comes from full knowledge of the past and foresight into the future. Of such wisdom The Fall of Hyperion in its amended form, as revealed and commented by Mnemosyne-Moneta, the great priestess and prophetess, remembrancer and admonisher in one, was meant to be a sample,–or such an attempt at a sample as Keats at the present stage of his mental growth could supply. But the attempt soon proved beyond his strength and was abandoned.
The preamble, or induction, he had finished; and this, if we leave out the futile eighteen lines with which it begins, contains much lofty thought conveyed in noble imagery and in a style of blank verse quite his own and independent of all models. Take the feast of fruits, symbolic of the poet’s early unreflecting joys, and the new thirst for some finer and more inspiring elixir which follows it:–
On a mound
Of moss, was spread a feast of summer fruits,
Which, nearer seen, seem’d refuse of a meal
By angel tasted or our Mother Eve;
For empty shells were scattered on the grass,
And grape-stalks but half bare, and remnants more
Sweet-smelling, whose pure kinds I could not know.
Still was more plenty than the fabled horn
Thrice emptied could pour forth at banqueting,
For Proserpine return’d to her own fields,
Where the white heifers low. And appetite,
More yearning than on earth I ever felt,
Growing within, I ate deliciously,–
And, after not long, thirsted; for thereby
Stood a cool vessel of transparent juice
Sipp’d by the wander’d bee, the which I took,
And pledging all the mortals of the world,
And all the dead whose names are in our lips,
Drank. That full draught is parent of my theme.
The draught plunges him into a profound sleep, from which he awakens a changed being among utterly changed surroundings. The world in which he finds himself is no longer a delicious garden but an ancient and august temple,–the noblest and most nobly described architectural vision in all Keats’s writings:–
I look’d around upon the curved sides
Of an old sanctuary, with roof august,
Builded so high, it seemed that filmed clouds
Might spread beneath as o’er the stars of heaven.
So old the place was, I remember’d none
The like upon the earth: what I had seen
Of grey cathedrals, buttress’d walls, rent towers,
The superannuations of sunk realms,
Or Nature’s rocks toil’d hard in waves and winds,
Seem’d but the faulture of decrepit things
To that eternal domed monument.
The sights the poet sees and the experiences which befall him within this temple; the black gates closed against the east,–which must symbolize the forgotten past of the world; the stupendous image enthroned aloft in the west, with the altar at its foot, approachable only by an interminable flight of steps; the wreaths of incense veiling the altar and spreading a mysterious sense of happiness; the voice of one ministering at the altar and shrouded in the incense–a voice at once of invitation and menace, bidding the dreamer climb to the summit of the steps by a given moment or he will perish utterly; the sense of icy numbness and death which comes upon him before he can reach even the lowest step; the new life that pours into him as he touches the step; his accosting of the mysterious veiled priestess who stands on the altar platform when he has climbed to it; all these phases of the poet’s ordeal are impressively told, but are hard to interpret otherwise than dubiously and vaguely. Matters become more definite a moment afterwards, when in answer to the poet’s questions the priestess tells him that none can climb to the altar beside which he stands,–the altar, we must suppose, of historic and prophetic knowledge where alone, after due sacrifice of himself, the poet can find true inspiration,–except those
to whom the miseries of the world Are misery and will not let them rest.
The poet pleads that there are thousands of ordinary men and women who feel the sorrows of the world and do their best to mitigate them, and is answered,–
‘Those whom thou spakest of are no visionaries’
Rejoin’d that voice; ‘they are no dreamers weak;
They seek no wonder but the human face,
No music but a happy-noted voice:
They come not here, they have no thought to come;
And thou art here, for thou art less than they.
What benefit canst thou do, or all thy tribe,
To the great world? Thou art a dreaming thing,
A fever of thyself: think of the earth;
What bliss, even in hope, is there for thee?
What haven? every creature hath its home,
Every sole man hath days of joy and pain,
Whether his labours be sublime or low–
The pain alone, the joy alone, distinct:
Only the dreamer venoms all his days,
Bearing more woe than all his sins deserve.
What a pilgrimage has the soul of Keats gone through, when he utters this heartrending cry, from the day, barely three years before, when he was never tired of singing by anticipation the joys and glories of the poetic life and of the end that awaits it:–
These are the living pleasures of the bard,
But richer far posterity’s award.
What shall he murmur with his latest breath,
When his proud eye looks through the film of death?
The truth is that, in all this, Keats in his depression of mind and body has become fiercely unjust to his own achievements and their value: for if posterity were asked, would it not reply that the things of sheer beauty his youth has left us, draughts drawn from the inmost wells of nature and antiquity and romance, are of greater solace and refreshment to his kind than anything he could have been likely to achieve by deliberate effort in defiance of his natural genius or in premature anticipation of its maturity?
At this point there follows a fretful passage, ill-written or rather only roughly drafted, and therefore not included in the transcripts of the fragments by his friends, in which his monitress affirms contemptuously the gulf that separates the romantic dreamer from the true poet. He accepts the reproof and the threatened punishment, the more willingly if they are to extend to certain ‘hectorers in proud bad verse’ (he means Byron) who have aroused his spleen. Reverting to a loftier strain, and acknowledging the grace she has so far shown him, the poet asks his monitress to reveal herself. He had probably long before been impressed by engravings of the well-known ancient statue of the seated Mnemosyne sitting forward with her chin resting on her hand, her arm and shoulder heavily swathed in drapery: but his vision of her here seems wholly independent, and is noble and mystically haunting. When she has signified to him in a softened voice that the gigantic image above the altar is that of Saturn, and that the scenes of the world’s past she is about to evoke before him are those of the fall of Saturn, the poet relates:–
As near as an immortal’s sphered words
Could to a mother’s soften were these last:
And yet I had a terror of her robes,
And chiefly of the veils that from her brow
Hung pale, and curtain’d her in mysteries,
That made my heart too small to hold its blood.
This saw that Goddess, and with sacred hand
Parted the veils. Then saw I a wan face,
Not pin’d by human sorrows, but bright-blanch’d
By an immortal sickness which kills not;
It works a constant change, which happy death
Can put no end to; deathwards progressing
To no death was that visage; it had past
The lilly and the snow; and beyond these
I must not think now, though I saw that face.
But for her eyes I should have fled away;
They held me back with a benignant light,
Soft, mitigated by divinest lids
Half-clos’d, and visionless entire they seem’d
Of all external things; they saw me not,
But in blank splendour beam’d, like the mild moon,
Who comforts those she sees not, who knows not
What eyes are upward cast.
The aspirant now adoringly entreats her to disclose the tragedy that he perceives to be working in her brain: she consents, and from this point begins the original Hyperion re-cast and narrated as a vision within the main vision, with comments put into the mouth of the prophetess. But the scheme, which under no circumstances, one would say, could have been a prosperous one, was soon abandoned, and this, the last of Keats’s great fragments, breaks off near the beginning of the second book.
73. Carm. iii. 4., which probably Keats knew also at first hand, but largely on Ronsard’s translation.
74. The daughter of Styx is Victory, and ‘halecret’ is a corslet.
75. The passage ending, ‘the pleasure that is in sorrow is sweeter than the pleasure of pleasure itself.’
76. With duller steel than the Persèan sword They cut away no formless monster’s head.
77. See the letter to Taylor quoted earlier.
78. Auctores Mythographi Latini, ed. Van Teyden Staveren, 1742. Keats’s copy of the book was bought by him in 1819, and passed after his death into the hands first of Brown, and afterwards of Archdeacon Bailey Houghton MSS.). The passage about Moneta which had wrought in Keats’s mind occurs at page 4 in the notes to Hyginus.
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 By Sidney Colvin Chapter XIV" https://englishhistory.net/keats/john-keats-sidney-colvin-chapter-xiv/, February 24, 2015