At the beginning of the few brief years of extraordinary happiness which Keats enjoyed, before his fatal illness declared itself, he wrote from Carisbrooke (18th April 1817): I find I cannot exist without poetrywithout eternal poetryhalf the day will not do. Here is the clue to the whole artistic careersome five or six years longof the most wholly and completely obsessed English poet in the whole calendar. Even Shelley, whom one ranks with him by a natural association in time and poetry, thought first of liberty and libertys revolt; while Coleridge looked to philosophy, and Wordsworth loved Nature and himself her votary, more than that spirit of poetry which for Keats was a breathing, embodied creature and wore a visible garment. This devotion of his it was that helped him to triumph as he did over gross circumstancethe rank habits of the Georgian middle-class, the familiarity of Mr Charles Brown (who wished to play family-doctor to the muse), and all the mixed sentimentalism and brutality of the years succeeding Waterloo. It brought him safe through his adventures of youth, subdued the taunts of the evil-speakers, and procured him his claim to nobility before he died; much as the knight in the romance turned by force of chivalry the damsel Maledisant into the damsel Bienpensant and gained a castle. It almost redeems the things in his history that we would rather have never known, and that the painful economy of his editors has insisted on our knowing. It even casts a glamour over the weaker side of his poetryits conceits, lovesick anguish, borrowed finery, and the rest.
The reality of the service and experience in the art with which he followed his genius, can be tested in various ways. The greatest sign of all is to be seen in the amazing intellectual and imaginative advance from Endymion to Hyperion. In the one, almost every trick of egregious fancy and the ornamental art of rhyme is employed in its extravagance along with the real and imaginative faculties of the mind. Traces of the friend of Brown and the disciple of Leigh Hunt, traces of the true poet and the true Keats, are to be found side by side in this passage of Endymion, the invocation to Arethusa:
Blushing into my soul, and let us fly
These dreary caverns for the open sky.
I will delight thee all my winding course,
From the green sea up to my hidden source
About Arcadian forests; and will show
The channels where my coolest waters flow
Through mossy rocks; where mid exuberant green
I roam in pleasant darkness, more unseen
Than Saturn in his exile; where I brim
Round flowery islands, and take thence a skim
Of mealy sweets, which myriads of bees
Buzz from their honeyd wings: and thou shouldst please
Thyself to choose the richest, where we might
Be incense-pillowd every summer night.
Doff all sad fears, thou white deliciousness,
And let us be thus comforted; unless
Thou couldst rejoice to see my hopeless stream
Hurry distracted from Sols temperate beam,
And pour to death along some hungry sands.
Turn on, then, to a classic passage in the same poem, where Keats really finds himself, and grows equal to his argument:
In gulf or aerie, mountains or deep dells,
In light, in gloom, in star or blazing sun,
Thou pointest out the way, and straight tis won.
Amid his toil thou gavest Leander breath;
Thou leddest Orpheus through the gleams of death;
And now, O winged Chieftain! thou hast sent
A moonbeam to the deep, deep water-world,
To find Endymion.
Or to the Bacchantic interlude in Book IV., where you have so simple and choice an echo of the merry- melancholy note, heard in some old English country songs:
I bade good-morrow
And thought to leave her far away behind;
But cheerly, cheerly,
She loves me dearly;
She is so constant to me, and so kind.
I would deceive her,
And so leave her,
But ah! she is so constant and so kind.
In Endymion, Keats is trying his hand; it is his young experiment, full of delights and crudities, both of idea and style. In Hyperion he has mastered his instrument: in its greater passages his music and thought ring true, as they do in his high compeers and in Milton, his master, making one realise the discipline that he put himself through and that made him say: The Genius of Poetry must work out its
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