Chapter VII



The poems of 1820
During the twenty months ending with his return from Winchester as last narrated, Keats had been able, even while health and peace of mind and heart deserted him, to produce in quick succession the series of poems which give us the true measure of his powers. In the sketches and epistles of his first volume we have seen him beginning, timidly and with no clearness of aim, to make trial of his poetical resources. A year afterwards he had leapt, to use his own words, headlong into the sea, and boldly tried his strength on the composition of a long mythological romance - half romance, half parable of that passion for universal beauty of which he felt in his own bosom the restless and compulsive workings. In the execution, he had done injustice to the power of poetry that was in him by letting both the exuberance of fancy and invention, and the caprice of rhyme, run away with him, and by substituting for the worn-out verbal currency of the last century a semi-Elizabethan coinage of his own, less acceptable by habit to the literary sense, and often of not a whit greater real poetic value. The experiment was rash, but when he next wrote, it became manifest that it had not been made in vain. After Endymion his work threw off, not indeed entirely its faults, but all its weakness and ineffectiveness, and shone for the first time with a full 'effluence' (the phrase is Landor's) 'of power and light.'

Isabella
His next poem of importance was Isabella, planned and begun, as we saw, in February 1818, and finished in the course of the next two months at Teighnouth. The subject is taken from the well-known chapter of Boccaccio which tells of the love borne by a damsel of Messina for a youth in the employ of her merchant-brothers, with its tragic close and pathetic sequel. Keats for some reason transfers the scene of the story from Messina to Florence. Nothing can be less sentimental than Boccaccio's temper, nothing more direct and free from superfluity than his style. Keats invoking him asks pardon for his own work as what it truly is, "An echo of thee in the Northwind sung." Not only does the english poet set the southern story in a framework of northern landscape, telling us of the Arno, for instance, how its stream -
"Gurgles through straitened banks, and still doth fan
Itself with dancing bulrush, and the bream
Keeps head against the freshets"
[Read the lines in their context.]
he further adorns and amplifies it in a northern manner, enriching it with tones of sentiment and colours of romance, and brooding over every image of beauty or passion as he calls it up. These things he does - but no longer inordinately as heretofore. His powers of imagination and of expression have alike gained strength and discipline; and through the shining veils of his poetry his creations make themselves seen and felt in living shape, action, and motive. False touches and misplaced beauties are indeed not wanting. For example, in the phrase

"his erewhile timid lips grew bold
And poesied with hers in dewy rhyme,"
[Read the lines in their context.]
we have an effusively false touch, in the sugared taste not infrequent in his earliest verses. And in the call of the wicked brothers to Lorenzo -
"To-day we purpose, aye this hour we mount
To spur three leagues towards the Apennine.
Come down, we pray thee, ere the hot sun count
His dewy rosary on the eglantine,"
[Read the lines in their context.]
the last two lines are a beauty indeed, and of the kind most characteristic of the poet, yet a beauty (as Leigh Hunt long ago pointed out) misplaced in the mouths that utter it. Moreover the language of Isabella is still occassionally slipshod, and there are turns and passages where we feel, as we felt so often in Endymion, that the poetic will has abdicated to obey the chance dictation or suggestion of the rhyme. But these are the minor blemishes of a poem otherwise conspicuous for power and charm.
For his Italian story Keats chose an Italian metre, the octave stanza introduced in English by Wyatt and Sidney, and naturalised before long by Daniel, Drayton, and Edward Fairfax. Since their day, the stanza had been little used in serious poetry, though Frere and Byron had lately revived it for the poetry of light narrative and satire, the purpose for which the epigrammatic snap and suddenness of the closing couplet in truth best fit it. Keats, however, contrived generally to avoid this effect, and handles the measure flowingly and well in a manner suited to his tale of pathos. Over the purely musical and emotional resources of his art he shows a singular command in stanzas like that beginning, 'O Melancholy, linger here awhile' repeated with veriations as a kind of melodious interlude of the main narrative. And there is a brilliant alertness of imagination in such episodical passages as that where he pauses to realize the varieties of human toil contributing to the wealth of the merchant brothers. But the true test of a poem like this is that it should combine, at the essential points and central moments of action and passion, imaginative vitality and truth with beauty and charm. This test Isabella admirably bears. For instance, in the account of the vision which appears to the heroine of her lover's mouldering corpse: -
"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."
[Read the lines in their context.]
With what a true poignancy of human tenderness is the story of the apparition invested by this touch, and all its charnel horror and grimness mitigatet! Or again in the stanzas describing Isabellas's actions at her lover's burial place:-
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 lily of the dell:
Then with her knife, all sudden, she began
To dig more fervently than misers can.
[Read the lines in their context.]
The lines are not all of equal workmanship: but the scene is realised with 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 to dig 'more fervently than misers can' (what a commentary on the relative strength of passion might be drawn from this simple text): - 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 a limpid and flowing ease of narrative. Poetry had always come to Keats, as he considered it ought to come, as naturally as leaves to a tree; 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. [...]

Hyperion
After the completion of Isabella followed the Scotch tour, of which the only poetic fruits of value were the lines on Meg Merrilies and those on Fingal's Cave. Returning in shaken health to the bedside of a brother mortally ill, Keats plunged at once into the most arduous poetic labour he had yet undertaken. This was the composition of Hyperion. The subject had been long in his mind, and both in the text and the preface of Endymion he indicated his intention to attempt it. At first he thought of the poem to be written as a 'romance': but under the influence of Paradise Lost, and no doubt also considering the height and vastness of the subject, his plan changed to that of a blank verse epic in ten books. His purpose was to sing the Titanomachia, or warfare of the earlier Titanic dynasty with the later Olympian dynasty of the Greek gods; and in particular one episode of that warfare, the dethronement of the sungod Hyperion and the assumption of his kingdom by Apollo. Critics, even intelligent critics, sometimes complain that Keats should have taken this and other subjects of his art from what they call the 'dead' mythology of ancient Greece. As if that mythology could ever die: as if the ancient fables, in passing out of the transitory state of things believed, into the state of things remembered and charished in imagination, had not put on a second life more enduring and more fruitful than the first. Faiths, as faiths, perish one after another: but each in passing away bequeaths for the enrichment of the after-world whatever elements it has contained of imaginative or moral truth or beauty. The polytheism of ancient Greece, embodying the instinctive effort of the brightliest-gifted human race to explain its earliest experiences of nature and civilization, of the thousand moral and material forces, cruel or kindly, which environ and control the life of man on earth, is rich beyond measure in such elements; and if the modern world at any time fails to value them, it is the modern mind which is in so far dead and not they. One of the great symptoms of returning vitality in the imagination of Europe, toward the close of the eighteenth century, was its awakening to the forgotten charm of past modes of faith and life. [...]
The great leader and pioneer of the modern spirit on this new phase of its pilgrimage was Goethe, who with deliberate effort and self-discipline climbed to heights commanding an equal survey over the medićval and the classic past. We had in England had an earlier, shyer, and far less effectual pioneer in Gray. As time went on, poet after poet arose and sang more freely, one the glories of nature, another the enchantment of the Middle Age, another the Greek beauty and joy of life. Keats when his time came showed himself, all young and untutored as he was, freshly and powerfully inspired to sing of all three alike. He does not, as we have said, write of Greek things in a Greek manner. Something indeed in Hyperion - at least in the first two books - he has caught from Paradise Lost of the hight restraint and calm which was common to the Greeks and Milton. But to realise how far he is in workmanship from the Greek purity and precision of outline, and firm definition of individual images, we have only to think of his palace of Hyperion, with its vague far-dazzling pomps and phantom terrors of coming doom. This is the most sustained and celebrated passage of the poem. Or let us examine one of its most characteristic images from nature: -
"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 -."
[Read the lines in their context.]
Not to the simplicity of the Greek, but to the complexity of the modern, sentiment of nature, it belongs 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 aspect of 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.
But though Keats sees the Greek world from afar, he sees it truly. The Greek touch is not his, but in his own rich and decorated English way he writes with a sure insight into the vital meaning of Greek ideas. For the story of the war of Titans and Olympians he had nothing to guide him except scraps from the ancient writers, principally Hesiod, as retailed by the compilers of classical dictionaries; and from the scholar's point of view his version, we can see, would at many points have been arbitrary, mixing up Latin conceptions and nomenclature with Greek, and introducing much new matter of his own invention. But as to the essential meaning of that warfare and its result - 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, - as to this, it could not possibly be divined more truly, or illustrated with more beauty and force, than by Keats in the speech of Oceanus in the Second Book. Again, in conceiving and animating these colossal shapes of early gods, with their personalities between the elemental and the human, what masterly justice of 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 realize their voices. Thus of the assembled gods when Saturn is about to speak: -
«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;»
[Read the lines in their context.]
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.»
[Read the lines in their context.]
And once more, of Clymene followed by 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,»
[Read the lines in their context.]
This second book of Hyperion, relating the council of the dethroned Titans, has neither the sublimity of the first, where the solemn opening vision of Saturn fallen is followed by the resplendent one of Hyperion threatened in his 'lucent empire'; nor the intensity 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, quite on a level with the other two. With a few slips and inequalities, and one or two instances of verbal incorrectness, Hyperion as far as it was written, is indeed one of the grandest poems in our language, and in its grandeur seems one of the easiest and most spontaneous. Keats, however, had never been able to apply himself to it continuously, but only by fits and starts. Partly this was due to the distractions of bereavement, of material anxiety, and of dawning passion amid which it was begun and continued: partly (if we may trust the statement of the publishers) to disappointment at the reception of Endymion: and partly, it is clear, to something not wholly congenial to his powers in the task itself. When after letting the poem lie by through the greater part of the spring and summer of 1819, he in September made up his mind to give it up, he wrote to Reynolds explaining his reasons as follows. "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." In the same connection he declares that Chatterton is the purest writer in the English language. "He has no French idiom or particles, like Chaucer; it is genuine English idiom in English words." In writing about the same to his brother, he again expresses similar opinions both as to Milton and Chatterton. [...]

The Eve of St Agnes
In turning back from Milton to Chatterton, he was going back to one of his first loves in literature. What he says of Chatterton's words and idioms seems paradocial enough, as applied to the archaic jargon concocted by the Bristol boy out of Kersey's Dictionary. But it is true that through that jargon can be discerned, in the Rowley poems, not only an ardent feeling for romance and an extraordinary facility in composition, but a remarkable gift of plain and flowing construction. And after Keats had for some time moved, not perfectly at his ease, though with results to us so masterly, in the paths of Milton, we find him in fact tempted aside on an excursion into the regions beloved by Chatterton. We know not now much of Hyperion had been written when he laid it aside, in January to take up the composition of St Agnes' Eve, that unsurpassed example - nay, must we not rather call it unequalled? - of the pure charm of coloured and romantic narrative in English verse. As this poem does not attempt the elemental grandeur of Hyperion, so neither does it approach the human pathos and passion of Isabella. Its personages appeal to us, not so much humanly and in themselves, as by the circumstances, scenery and atmosphere amidst which we see them move. Herein lies the strength, and also the weakness, of modern romance, - its strength, inasmuch as the charm of the medićval colour and mystery is unfailing for those who feel it at all, - its weakness, inasmuch as under the influence of that charm both writer and reader are too apt to forget the need for human and moral truth: and without these no great literature can exist.
Keats takes in this poem the simple, almost threadbare theme of the love of an adventurous youth for the daughter of a hostile house, - a story wherein something of Romeo and Juliet is mixed with something of young Lochinvar, - and brings it deftly into association with the old popular belief as to the way a maiden might on this anniversary win sight of her lover in a dream. Choosing happily, for such a purpose, the Spenserian stanza, he adds to the melodious grace, the 'sweet-slipping movement,' as it has been called, of Spenser, a transparent ease and directness of construction; and with this ease and directness combines (wherein lies the great secret of his ripened art) a never-failing richness and concentration of poetic meaning and suggestion. 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 cratures 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 make their way past the sleeping porter and the friendly bloodhound into the night, the poetry seems to throb in every line with the life of imagination and beauty. It indeed plays in great part about the external circumstances and decorative adjuncts of the tale. But 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. Thus the monuments in the chapel 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.»
[Read the lines in their context.]
Even into the scupltured heads of the corbels in the banqueting hall 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 breasts.»
[Read the lines in their context.]
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, -»
[Read the lines in their context.]
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. 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 hues of painted glass as Keats in this celebrated passage represents it. 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. 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 sprits in an epithet breathing with the very life of the wearer, 'her warmed 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 Samarcand to cedar'd Lebanon."
[Read the lines in their context.]
If 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 emothions of the personages are hardly less happily conceived as far as they go. What can be better touched than the figures of the beadsman and the nurse, who live just long enough to share in the wonders on the night, and die quietly of age when their parts are over: especially the debate of old Angela with Prophyro, and her gentle treatment by her mistress on the stair? Madeline is exquisite throughout, but most of all, I think at two moments: first when she has just entered her chamber, -
"No uttered syllable, or, woe betide:
But to her heart, her heart was voluble,
Paining with eloquence her balmy side:" -
[Read the lines in their context.]
and afterwards when, awakening, she finds her lover beside her, and contrasts his bodily presence with her dream: -
"'Ah Pophyro!' said she, 'but even now
Thy voice was at sweet tremble in mine ear
Made tunable with every sweetest vow;
And those sad eyes were spiritual and clear;
How changed thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear'."
[Read the lines in their context.]
Criticism may urge, indeed, that in the 'growing faint' of Porphyro, and in his 'warm unnerved arm,' we have a touch of that swooning abandonment to which Keats's heroes are too subject. But is is the slightest possible; and after all the trait belongs not more to the poet individually than to his time. Lovers in prose romances of that date are constantly overcome in like manner. And we may well pardon Porphyro his weakness, in consideration of the spirit which has led him to his lady's side in defiance of her 'whole bloodthirsty race,' and will bear her safely, this night of happy marvels over, to the home 'beyond the southern moors' that he has prepared for her.

The Eve of St Mark
Nearly allied with the Eve of St Agnes is the fragment in the four-foot ballad metre, which Keats composed on the parallel popular belief connected with The Eve of St Mark. This piece was planned, as we saw, at Chichester, and written, it appears, partly there and partly at Winchester six months later: the name of the heroine, Bertha, seems farther to suggest associations with Canterbury. Impressions of all these three cathedral cities which Keats knew are combined, no doubt, in the picture of which the fragment consists. I have said picture, but there are two: one the out-door picture of the city streets in their spring freshness and Sabbath peace: the other the indoor picture of the maiden reading in her quaint fire-lit chamber. Each in its way is of an admirable vividness and charm. The belief about St mark's Eve was that a person stationed near a church porch at twilight on that anniversary would see entering the church the apparitions of those about to die, or be brought near death, in the ensuing year. Keats's fragment breaks off before the story is well engaged, and it is not easy to see how his opening would have led up to incidents illustrating this belief. Neither is it clear whether he intended to place them in medićval or in relatively modern times. The demure Protestant air which he gives the Sunday streets, the Oriental furniture and curiosities of the lady's chamber, might seem to indicate the latter: but we must remember that he was never strict in his archćology - witness, for instance, the line which tells how 'the long carpets rose along the gusty floor' in the Eve of St Agnes. The interest of the St Mark's fragment, then, lies not in moving narrative or the promise of it, but in two things: first, its pictorial brilliance and charm of workmanship: and second, its relation to and influence on later english poetry. Keats in this piece anticipates in a remarkable degree the feeling and method of the modern pre-Raphaelite schools. The indoor scene of the girl over her book, in its insistent delight in vivid colour and the minuteness of far-sought suggestive and picturesque detail, is perfectly in the sprirt of Rossetti (whom we know that the fragment deeply impressed and interested), - of his pictures even more than of his poems: while in the outdoor work we seem to hind forestalled the very tones and cadences of William Morris in some tale of the Earthly Paradise:-
«The city streets were clean and fair
From sholwsome drench of April rains;
And on the western window panes
The chilly sunset faintly told
Of unmatured green valleys cold,
Of the green thorny bloomless hedge,
Of rivers new with springtide sedge.»
[Read the lines in their context.]

La Belle Dame sans Merci
Another poem of the same period, romantic in a different sense, is La Belle Dame sans Merci. The title is taken from that of a poem by Alain Chartier, - the secretary and court poet of Charles VI. and Charles VII. of France, - of which an English translation used to be attributed to Chaucer, and is included in the early editions of his works. This title had caught Keats's fancy, and in the Eve of St Agnes he makes Porphyro waken Madeline by playing beside her bed -
«an ancient ditty, long since mute, In Provence call'd 'La belle dame sans merci'..»
[Read the lines in their context.]
The syllables continuing to haunt him, he wrote in the course of the spring or summer (1819) a poem of his own on the theme, which has no more to do with that of Chartier than Chartier has really to do with Provence. Keats's ballad can hardly be said to tell a story; but rather sets before us, with imagery drawn from the medićval world of enchantment and knight-errantry, a type of the wasting power of love, when either adverse fate or deluded choice makes of love not a blessing but a bane. The plight which the poet thus shadows forth is partly that of his own soul in thraldom. Every reader must feel how truly the imagery expresses the passion: how powerfully, through these fascinating old-world symbols. the universal heart of man is made to speak. To many students (of whom the present writer is one), the union of infinite tenderness with a weird intensity, the conciseness and purity of the poetic form, the wild yet simple magic of the cadences, the perfect 'inevitable' union of sound and sense, make of La Belle Dame sans Merci the master-piece, not only among the shorter poems of Keats, but even (if any single master-piece must be chosen) among them all.

Lamia
Before finally giving up Hyperion Keats had conceived and written, during his summer months at Shanklin and Winchester, another narrative poem on a Greek subject: but one of those where Greek life and legend come nearest to the medićval, and give scope both for scenes of wonder and witchcraft, and for the stress and vehemence of passion. I speak, of course, of Lamia, the story of the serpent-lady, both enchantress and victim of enchantments, who loves a youth of Corinth, and builds for him by her art a palace of delights, until their happiness is shattered by the scrutiny of intrusive and cold-blooded wisdom. Keats had found the germ of the story, quoted from Philostratus, in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. In versifying it he went back once more to rhymed heroics; handling them, however, not as in Endymion, but in a manner founded on that of Dryden, with a free use of the Alexandrine, a more sparing one of the overflow and the irregular pause, and of disyllabic rhymes non at all. In the measure as thus treated by Keats there is a fire and grace of movement, a lithe and serpentine energy, well suited to the theme, and as effective in its way as the victorious march of Dryden himself. Here is an example where the poetry of Greek mythology is finely 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! 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?
[Read the lines in their context.]
And here an instance of the power and reality of 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
Flared, here and there, from wealthy festivals,
And threw their moving shadows on the walls,
Or found them cluster’d in the corniced shade
Of some arch’d temple door, or dusky colonnade."
[Read the lines in their context.]
No one can deny the truth of Keats's own criticism on Lamia 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." There is perhaps nothing in all his writings so vivid, or that so burns itself in upon the mind, as the picture of the serpent-woman awaiting the touch of Hermes to transform her, followed by the agonized process of the transformation itself. Admirably told, though perhaps somewhat disproportionately for its place in the poem, is the introductory episode of Hermes and his nymph: admirably again the concluding scene where the merciless gaze of the philosopher exorcises his pupil's dream of love and beauty, and the lover in forfeiting his illusion forfeits life. This thrilling vividness of narration in particular points, and the fine melodious vigour of much of the verse, have caused some students to give Lamia almost the first, if not the first, place among Keats's narrative poems. But surely for this it is in some parts too feverish, and in others too unequal. It contains descriptions not entirely successful, as for instance that of the palace reared by Lamia's magic; which will not bear comparison with other and earlier dream-palaces of the poet's building. And it has reflective passages, as that in the first book beginning, 'Let the mad poets say whate'er they please,' and the first fifteen lines of the second, where from the winning and truly poetic ease of his style at its best, Keats relapses into something too like Leigh Hunt's and his own early strain of affected ease and fireside triviality. He shows at the same time signs of a return to his former rash experiments in language. The positive virtues of beauty and felicity in his diction had never been attended by the negative virtue of strict correctness: thus in the Eve of St Agnes we had to 'brook' tears for to check or forbear them, in Hyperion 'portion'd' for 'proportion'd;' eyes that 'fever out;' a chariot 'foam'd along.' Some of these verbal licences possess a force that makes them pass; but not so in Lamia the adjectives 'psalterian' and 'piazzian,' the verb 'to labyrinth,' and the participle 'daft,' as if from an imaginary active verb meaning to daze.
In the moral which the tale is made to illustrate there is moreover a weakness. Keats himself gives us fair warning against attaching too much importance to any opinion which in a momentary mood we may find him uttering. But the doctrine he sets forth in Lamia is one which from the reports of his conversation we know him to have held with a certain consistency: -
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.
[Read the lines in their context.]
Campbell has set forth the same doctrine more fully in The Rainbow: but one sounder, braver, and of better hope, by which Keats would have done well to stand, is preached by Wordsworth in his famous Preface.

The Odes
Passing, now, from the narrative to the reflective portion of Keats's work during this period - it was on the odes, we saw, that he was chiefly occupied in the spring months of 1819, from the completion of St Agnes's Eve at Chichester in January until the commencement of Lamia and Otho the Great at Shanklin in June. These odes of Keats constitute a class apart in English literature, in form and manner neither lineally derived from any earlier, nor much resembling any contemporary, verse. In what he calls the 'roundelay' of the Indian maiden in Endymion he had made his most elaborate lyrical attempt until now; and while for once approaching Shelley in lyric ardour and height of pitch, had equalled Coleridge in touches of wild musical beauty and far-sought romance. His new odes are comparatively simple and regular in form. They are written in a strain intense indeed, but meditative and brooding, and quite free from the declamatory and rhetorical elements which we are accustomed to associate with the idea of an ode. Of the five composed in the spring of 1819, two, those on Psyche and the Grecian Urn, are inspired by the old Greek world of imagination and art; two, those on Melancholy and the Nightingale, by moods of the poet's own mind; while the fifth, that on Indolence, partakes in a weaker degree of both inspirations.

Ode to Psyche
In the Psyche, (where the stanza is of a lengthened type approaching those of Spenser's nuptial odes, but not regularly repeated,) Keats recurs to a theme of which he had long been enamoured, as we know by the lines in the opening poem of his first book, beginning -
"So felt he, who firsts told how Psyche went
On the smooth wind to reals of wonderment."
Following these lines, in his early piece, came others disfigured by cloying touches of the kind too common in his love-scenes. Nor are like touches quite absent from the ode: but they are more than compensated by the exquisite freshness of the natural scenery where the mythic lovers are disclosed - 'Mid hush'd, cool-rooted flowers fragrant-eyed.' What other poet has compressed into a single line so much of the true life and charm 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 in his own manner the equal. The 'azure-lidded sleep' of the maiden in St Agnes' Eve is matched in this ode by the 'moss-lain Dryads' and the 'soft-conchčd ear' of Psyche; though the last epithet perhaps jars on us a little with a sense of oddity, like the 'cirque-couchant' snake in Lamia . For the rest, there is certainly 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 worhip 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 grown with pleasant pain,
Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind."
[Read the lines in their context.]
Yet over such difficulties the true lover of poetry will find himself swiftly borne, until he pauses breathless and delighted at the threshold of the sanctuary prepared by the 'gardener Fancy,' his ear charmed by the glow and music of the verse, with its hurrying pace and artfully iterated vowels towards the close, his mind enthralled by the beauty of the invocation and the imagery.

Ode on a Grecian Urn
Less glowing, but of finer conception and more rare poetic value, is the Ode on a Grecian Urn. Instead of the long and unequal stanza of the Psyche, it is written in a regular stanza of five rhymes, the first two arranged in a quatrain, and the second three in a septet. The sight, or the imagination, of a piece of ancient sculpture had set the poet's mind at work, on the one hand conjuring up the scenes of ancient life and worship which lay behind and suggested the sculptured images; on the other, speculating on 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 out of the darkness of antiquity - interrogatories which are at the same time picctures, - 'What men or gods are these, what maidens loth,' &c. The second and third stanzas express with perfect poetic felicity and insight the vital 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. Then the questioning begins again, and yields the incomparable 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?"
[Read the lines in their context.]
In the answering lines -
"And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return,-"
[Read the lines in their context.]
in these lines there seems a dissonance, inasmuch as they speak of 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. But it is a dissonance which the attentive reader can easily reconcile for himself: and none but an attentive reader will notice it. Finally, dropping the airy play of the mind backward and forward between the two spheres, the poet 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, -"
[Read the lines in their context.]
thus proclaiming, in the last words, what amidst the gropings of reason and the flux of things is to the poet and artist - at least to one of Keats's temper - an immutable law. It seems clear that no single extant work of antiquity can have supplied Keats with the suggestion for this poem. There exists, indeed, at Holland House an urn wrought with just such a scene of pastoral sacrifice as is described in his fourth stanza: and of course no subject is commoner in Greek relief-sculpture than a Bacchanalian procession. But the two subjects do not, so far as I know, occur together on any single work of ancient art: and Keats probably imagined his urn by a combination of sculptures actually seen in the British Museum with others known to him only from engravings, and particularly from Piranesi's etchings. Lord Holland's urn is duly figured in the Vasi e Candelabri of that admirable master. From the old Leigh Hunt days Keats had been fond of what he calls -
"the pleasant flow
Of words at opening a portefolio:"
and in the scene of sacrifice in Endymion we may perhaps already find a proof of familiarity with this particular print, as well as an anticipation of the more masterly poetic rendering of the subject in the ode.

Ode on Indolence
The ode On Indolence stands midway, not necessarily in date of composition, but in scope and feeling, between the two Greek and the two personal odes, as I have above distinguished them. In it Keats again calls up the image of a marble urn, but not for its own sake, only to illustrate the guise in which he feigns the allegoric presences of Love, Ambition, and Poetry to have appeared to him in a day-dream. This ode, less highly wrought and more unequal than the rest, contains the imaginative record of a passing mood (mentioned also in his correspondence) when the wonted intensity of his emotional life was suspended under the spell of an agreeable physical languor. Well had it been for him had such moods come more frequently to give him rest. Most sensitive among the sons of men, the sources of joy and pain lay together in his nature: and unsatisfied passion kept both sources filled to bursting. One of the attributes he assigns to his enchantress Lamia is a
"sciential brain
To unperplex bliss from its neighbour brain."
[Read the lines in their context.]

Ode on Melancholy
In the fragmentary ode On Melancholy (which has no proper beginning, its first stanza having been discarded) he treats the theme of Beaumont and of Milton in a manner entirely his own: expressing his experience of the habitual interchange and alternation of emotions of joy and pain with a characteristic easy magnificence of imagery and style: -
"Aye, in the very Temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovereign shrine,
Though known to none save him whose strenuou 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."
[Read the lines in their context.]

Ode to a Nightingale
The same crossing and intermingling of opposite currents of feelings finds expression, together with unequalled touches of the poet's feeling for nature and romance, in the Ode to a Nightingale. 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 he in his poem invokes, but a type of the race imagined as singing in some far-off scene of woodland mystery and beauty. Thither he sighs to follow her: fist by aid of the spell of some southern vintage - a spell which he makes us realize in lines redolent of the southern richness and joy. 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, by that gift whereby his mind is a match for nature, all the secrets of the season and the night. In this joy he remembers how often the thought of death has seemd welcome to him, and thinks it would be more welcome now than ever. The nightingale would not cease her song - and here, by a breach of logic which is also, I think, a flaw in the poetry, he contrasts the transitoriness of human life, meaning the life of the individual, with the permanence of the song-bird's life, meaning the life of the type. 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. In this group of the odes it takes rank beside the Grecian Urn in the other. Neither is strictly faultless, but such revealing imaginative insight and such conquering poetic charm, the touch that in striking so lightly strikes so deep, who does not prefer to faultlessness? Both odes are among the veriest glories to our poetry. Both are at the same time too long and too well known to quote.

Ode to Autumn
Let us therefore place here, as an example of this class of Keats's work, the ode To Autumn, which is the last he wrote, and contains the record of his quiet September days at Winchester. It opens out, indeed, no such far-reaching avenues of thought and feeling as the two last mentioned, but in execution is perhaps the completest of them all. 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 lightness.
1.
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-eves 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.

2.
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 cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

3.
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.

The Plays
To pass from our poet's work at this time in the several fields of romance, epic, ballad, and ode, to those in the field of drama, is to pass from a region of happy and assured conquest to one of failure, though of failure not unredeemed by auguries of future success, had any future been in store for him. At his age no man has ever been a master in the drama: even by the most powerful intuitive genius, neither human nature nor the difficulties of the art itself can be so early mastered. The manner in which Keats wrote his first play, merely supplying the words to a plot contrived as they went along by a friend of gifts radically inferior to his own, was moreover the least favourable that he could have attempted. He brought to the task the mastery over poetic colour an impassioned sentiment of romance, and a mind prepared to enter by sympathy into the hearts of men and women: while Brown contributed his amateur stage-craft, such as it was. But these things were not enough. The power of sympathetic insight had not yet developed in Keats into one of dramatic creation: and the joint word of the friends is confused in order and sequence, and far from masterly in conception. Keats indeed makes the characters speak in lines flashing with all the hues of poetry. But in themselves they have the effect only of puppets inexpertly agitated: Otho, a puppet type of royal dignity and fatherly affection, Ludolph of febrile passion and vacillation, Erminia of maidenly purity, Conrad and Auranthe of ambitious lust and treachery. At least until the end of the fourth act these strictures hold good. From that point Keats worked alone, and the fifth act, probably in consequence, shows a great improvement. There is a real dramatic effect, of the violent kind affected by the old English drama, in the disclosure of the body of Auranthe, dead indeed, at the moment when Ludolph in his madness vainly imagines himself to have slain her: and some of the speeches in which his frenzy breaks forth remind us strikingly of Marlowe, not only by their pomp of poetry and allusion, but by the tumult of the soul and senses expressed in them. Of the second histroical play, King Stephens, which Keats began by himself at Winchester, too little was written to afford matter for a safe judgment. The few scenes he finished are not only marked by his characteristic splendour and felicity of phrase: they are full of a spirit of heady action and the stir of battle: qualities which he had not shown in any previous work, and for which we might have doubted his capacity had not this fragment been preserved.
But in the mingling of his soul's and body's destinies it had been determined that neither this nor any other of his powers should be suffered to ripen farther upon earth.