|The poems of 1817|
The note of Keats's early volume is accurately struck in the motto from Spenser which he prefixed to it:-
"What more felicity can fall to creatureThe element in which his poetry moves is liberty, the consciousness of release from those conventions and restraints, not inherent in its true nature, by which the art had for the last hundred years been hampered. And the spirit which animates him is essentially the spirit of delight: delight in the beauty of nature and the vividness of sensation, delight in the charm of fable and romance, in the thoughts of friendship and affection, in anticipations of the future, and in the exercise of the art itself which expresses and communicates all these joys.
We have already glanced, in connection with the occasions which gave rise to them, at a few of the miscellaneous boyish pieces in various metres which are included in the volume, as well as at some of the sonnets. The remaining and much the chief portion of the book consists of half a dozen poems in the rhymed decasyllabic couplet. These had all been written during the period between November 1815 and April 1817, under the combined influence of the older English poets and of Leigh Hunt. The former influence shows itself everwhere in the substance and spirit of the poems, but less, for the present, in their form and style. Keats had by this time thrown off the eighteenth-century stiffness which clung to his earliest efforts, but he had not yet adopted, as he was about to do, a vocabulary and diction of his own full of licences caught from the Elizabethans and from Milton. The chief verbal echoes of Spenser to be found in his first volume are a line quoted from him entire in the epistle to G. F. Mathew, and the use of the archaic 'teen' in the stanzas professedly Spenserian. We can indeed trace Keats's familiarity with Chapman, and especially with one poem of Chapman's, his translation of the Homeric Hymn to Pan, in a predilection for a particular form of abstract descriptive substantive:-
"the pillowy silkiness that restsThe only other distinguishing marks of Keats's diction in this first volume consist, I think, in the use of the Miltonic 'sphery,' and of an unmeaning coinage of his own, 'boundly,' with a habit - for which Milton, Spenser, and among the moderns Leigh Hunt all alike furnished him the example - of turning nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns at his convenience. For the rest, Keats writes in the ordinary English of his day, with much more feeling for beauty of language than for correctness, and as yet without any formed or assured poetic style. Single lines and passages declare, indeed, abundantly his vital poetic faculty and instinct. But they are mixed up with much that only illustrates his crudity of taste, and the tendency he at this time shared with Leigh Hunt to mistake the air of chatty, trivial gusto for an air of poetic ease and grace. In the matter of metre, we can see Keats in these poems making a succession of experiments for varying the regularity of the heroic couplet. In the colloquial Epistles, addressed severally to G. F. Mathew, to his brother George, and to Cowden Clarke, he contents himself with the use of frequent disyllabic rhymes, and an occasional enjambement or 'overflow.' In the Specimen of an Induction to a Poem, and in the fragment of the poem itself, entitled Calidore (a name borrowed from the hero of Spenser's sixth book,) as well as in the unnamed piece beginning 'I stood tiptoe upon a little hill,' which opens the volume, he further modifies the measure by shortening now and then the second line of the couplet, with a lyric beat that may have been caught either from Spenser's nuptial odes or Milton's Lycidias, -
"Open afresh your round of starry folds,In Sleep and Poetry, which is the most personal and interesting, as well as probably the last-written, poem in the volume, Keats drops this practice, but in other respects varies the rhythm far more boldly, making free use of the overflow, placing his full pauses at any point in a line rather than at the end, and adopting as a principle rather than an exception the Chaucerian and Elizabethan fashion of breaking the couplet by closing a sentence or paragraph with its first line.
Passing from the form of the poems to their substance, we find that they are experiments or poetic preludes merely, with no pretension to be organic or complete works of art. To rehearse ramblingly the pleasures and aspirations of the poetic life, letting one train of images follow another with no particular plan or sequence, is all that Keats as yet attempts: except in the Calidore fragment. And that is on the whole feeble and confused: from the outset the poet loses himself in a maze of young luxuriant imagery: once and again, however, he gets clear, and we have some good lines in an approach to the Dryden manner: -
Softly the breezes from the forest came,To set against this are occasionally expressions in the complete taste of Leigh Hunt, as for instance -
"The lamps that from the high-roof'd wall were pendent,The Epistles are full of cordial tributes to the conjoint pleasures of literature and friendship. In that to Cowden Clarke, Keats acknowledges to his friends that he had been shy at first of addressing verses to him: -
Nor should I now, but that I’ve known you long;This is characteristic enough of the quieter and lighter manner of Keats in his early work. Blots like the ungrammatical fourth line are not infrequent with him. The preference for Miltonian tenderness over Miltonian storms may remind the reader of a later poets's mire masterly expression of the same sentiment: - 'Me rather all that bowery loneliness -'. The two lines on Spenser are of interest as conveying one of those incidental criticisms on poetry by a poet, of which no one has left us more or better than Keats. The habit of Spenser to which he here alludes is that of coupling or repeating the same vowels, both in their open and their closed sounds, in the same or successive lines, for example, -
"Eftsoones her shallow ship away did slide,The run here is on a and i; principally on i, which occurs five times in its open, and ten times in its closed, sound in the four lines, - if we are indeed to reckon as one vowel these two unlike sounds denoted by the same sign. Keats was a close and conscious student of the musical effects of verse, and the practice of Spenser is said to have suggested to him a special theory as to the use and value of the iteration of vowel sounds in poetry. What his theory was we are not clearly told, neither do I think it can easily be discovered from his practice; though every one must feel a great beauty of his verse to be in the richness of the vowel and diphthong sequences. He often spoke of the subject, and once maintained his view against Wordsworth when the latter seemd to be advocating a mechanical principle of vowel variation.
Hear, next how the joys of brotherly affection, of poetry, and of nature, come naively jostling one another in the Epistle addressed from the sea-side to his brother George: -
"As to my sonnets, though none else should heed them,It is interesting to watch the newly-awakened literary faculty in Keats thus exercising itself in the narrow circle of personal sensation, and on the description of the objects immediately before his eyes. the effect of rhythmical movement attempted in the last lines, to correspond with the buoyancy and variety of the motions described, has a certain felicity, and the whole passage is touched already with Keats's exquisite perception and enjoyment of external nature. His character as a poet of nature begins, indeed, distinctly to declare itself in this first volume. He differs by it alike from Wordsworth and from Shelley. The instinct of Wordsworth was to interpret all the operations of nature by those of his own strenuous soul; and the imaginative impressions he had received in youth from the scenery of his home, deepened and enriched by continual after meditation, and mingling with all the currents of his adult thought and feeling, constituted for him throughout his life the most vital part alike of patriotism, of philosophy, and of religion. For Shelley on his part natural beauty was in a twofold sense symbolical. In the visible glories of the world his philanthropy found in them types and auguries of a better life on earth; and all that imagery of nature's more remote and skyey phenomena, of which no other poet has had an equal mastery, and which comes borne to us along the music of the verse -
"With many a mingled closewas inseparable in his soul from visions of a radiant future and a renovated - alas! not a human - humanity. In Keats the sentiment of nature was simpler than in either of these two other masters; more direct, and so to speak more disinterested. It was his instinct to love and interpret nature more for her own sake, and less for the sake of sympathy which the human mind can read into her with its own workings and aspirations. He had grown up neither like Wordsworth under the spell of lake and mountain, nor in the glow of millennial dreams like Shelley, but London-born and Middlesex-bred, was gifted, we know not whence, as if by some mysterious birthright, with a delighted insight into all the beauties, and sympathy with all the life, of the woods and fields. Evidences of the gift appear, as every reader knows, in the longer poems of his first volume, with their lingering trains of peaceful summer imagery, and loving inventories of 'Nature's gentle doings;' and pleasant touches of the same kind are scattered also among the sonnets; as in that To Charles Wells, -
"As late I rambled in the happy fields,or again in that To Solitude, -
- "let me thy vigils keepSuch intuitive familiarity with the blithe activities, unnoted by common eyes, which make up the life and magic of nature, is a gift we attribute to men of primitive race and forest nurture; and Mr Matthew Arnold would have us recognize it as peculiarly characteristic of the Celtic element in the English genius and English poetry. It was allied in Keats to another instinct of the early world which we associate especially with the Greeks, the instinct for personifying the powers of nature in clearly-defined imaginary shapes endowed with human beauty and half-human faculties. The classical teaching of the Enfield school had not gone beyond Latin, and neither in boyhood nor afterwards did Keats acquire any Greek: but towards the creations of the Greek mythology he was attracted by an overmastering delight in their beauty, and a natural sympathy with the phase of imagination that engendered them. Especially he shows himself possessed and fancy-bound by the mythology, as well as by the physical enchantment, of the moon. Never was bard in youth so literally moonstruck. He has planned a poem on the ancient story of the loves of Diana, with whom the Greek moon-goddes Selene is identified in the Latin mythology, and the shepherd-prince Endymion; and had begun a sort of prelude to it in the piece that opens 'I stood tip-toe upon a little hill.' Afterwards, without abandoning the subject, Keats laid aside this particular exordium, and printed it, as we have seen, as an independent piece at the head of his first volume. It is at the climax of a passage rehearsing the delights of evening that he first bethinks himself of the moon -
"lifting her silver rimThe thought of the mythic passion of the moon-goddess for Endymion, and the praises of the poet who first sang it, follow at considerable length. The passage conjuring up the wonders and beneficences of their bridal night is written in part with such a sympathetic touch for the collective feelings and predicaments of men, in the ordinary conditions of human pain and pleasure, health and sickness, as rarely occurs again in Keat's poetry, though his correspondence shows it to have been most natural to his mind: -
«The evening weather was so bright, and clear,Finally, Keats abandons and breaks off this tentative exordium of his unwritten poem with the cry: -
"Cynthia! I cannot tell the greater blissesWas there a poet born? Is the labour and the reward of poetry really and truly destined to be his? The question is one which recurs in this early volume importunately and in many tones; sometimes with words and cadences closely recalling those of Milton in his boyish Vacation Exercise; sometimes with a cry like this, which occurs twice in the piece called Sleep and Poetry, -
«O Poesy! for thee I grasp my penand anon, with a less wavering, more confident and daring tone of young ambtition, -
But off Despondence! miserable bane!The feeling expressed in these last lines, the sense of the overmastering pressure and amplitude of an inspiration as yet unrealized and indistinct. gives way in other passages to confident anticipations of fame, and of the place which he will hold in the affections of posterity.
There is obviously a great immaturity and uncertainty in all these outpurings, an intensity and effervescence of emotion out of proportion as yet both to the intellectual and the voluntary powers, much confusion of idea, and not a little of expression. Yet even in this first book of Keats there is much that the lover of poetry will always cherish. Literature, indeed, hardly affords another example of word at once so crude and so attractive. Passages that go to pieces under criticism nevertheless have about them a spirit of beauty and of morning, an abounding young vitality and feshness, that exhilarate and charm us whether with the sanction of our judgment or without it. And alike at its best and worst, the work proceeds manifestly from a spontaneous and intense poetic impulse. The matter of these early poems of Keats is as fresh and unconventional as their form, springing directly from the bative poignancy of his sensations and abundance of his fancy. That his inexperience should always make the most discreet use of its freedom could not be expected; but with all its immaturity his work has strokes already which suggest comparison with the great names of literature. Who much exceeds him, even from the first, but Shakspere in momentary felicity of touch for nature, and in that charm of morning freshness who but Chaucer? Already, too, we find him showing signs of that capacity for clear and sane self-knowledge which becomes by-and-by so admirable in him. And he has already begun to meditate to good purpose on the aims and methods of his art. He has grasped and vehemently asserts the principle that poetry should not strive to enforce particular doctrines, that it should not contend in the field of reason, but that its proper organ is the imagination, and its aim the cration of beauty. With reference to the theory and practice of the poetic art the piece called Sleep and Poetry contains one passage which has become classically familiar to all readers. Often as it has been quoted elsewhere, it must be quoted again here, as indispensable to the understanding of the literary atmosphere in which Keats lived: -
Is there so small a rangeBoth the strength and the weakness of this are typically characteristic of the time and of the man. The passage is likely to remain for posterity the central expression of the spirit of literary emancipation then militant and about to triumph in England. [If] we have in us a touch of instinct for the poetry of imagination and beauty, as distinct from that of taste and reason, however clearly we may see the weak points of a passage like this, however much we may wish that taste and reason had had more to do with it, yet we cannot but feel that Keats touches truly the root of the matter; we cannot but admire the elastic life and variety of his verse, his fine spontaneous and effective turns of rhetoric, the ring and power of his appeal to the elements, and the glow of his delight in the achievements and promise of the new age.
His volume on its appearance by no means made the impression which his friends had hoped for it. Hunt published a thoroughly judicious as well as cordial criticism in the Examiner, and several of the provincial papers noticed the book. Haydon wrote in his ranting vein: "I have read your Sleep and Poetry - it is a flash of lightning that will rouse men from their occupations, and keep them trembling for the crash of thunder that will follow." But people were in fact as far from being disturbed in their occupations as possible. The attention of the reading public was for the moment almost entirely absorbed by men of talent or of genius who played with a more careless, and some of them with a more masterly touch than Keats as yet, on commoner chords of the human spirit; as Moore, Scott, and Byron. In Keats's volume every one could see the faults, while the beauties appealed only to the poetically minded. It seems to have had a moderate sale at first, but after the first few weeks none at all. The poet, or at all events his brothers for him, were inclined, apparently with little reason, to blame their friends the publishers for the failure. On the 29th of April we find the brothers Ollier replying to a letter of George Keats in dudgeon:-
"We regret that your brother ever requested us to publish his book, or that our opinion of its talent should have led us to aquiesce in undertaking it. We are, however, much obliged to you for relieving us from the unpleasant necessity of declining any further connexion with it, which we must have done, as we think the curiosity is satisfied, and the sale has dropped."[...]A fortnight before the date of this letter Keats had left London. Haydon had been urging on him, not injudiciously, the importance of seclusion and concentration of mind. We find him writing to Reynolds soon after the publication of his volume:- "My brothers are anxious that I should go by myself into the country; they have always been extremely fond of me, and now that Haydon has pointed out how necessary it is that I should be alone to improve myself, they give up the temporary pleasure of living with me continually for a great good which I hope will follow: so I shall soon be out of town." And on the 14th of April he in fact started for the Isle of Wight, intending to devote himself entirely to study, and to make immediately a fresh start upon Endymion.