Imágenes de páginas

sense, lively and energetic countenance, and entire freedom from any vulgarity or assumption on account of his prosperous alliance. He was killed by a fall from his horse in 1804, at the early age of thirty-six. The mother, a lively, intelligent woman, was supposed to have prematurely hastened the birth of John by her passionate love of amusement, though his constitution gave no signs of the peculiar debility of a seventh months child. He was born on the 29th of October, 1795.* He had two brothers, George, older than himself, Thomas, younger, and a sister much younger; John resembled his father in feature, stature, and manners, while the two brothers were more like their mother, who was tall, had a large oval face, and a somewhat saturnine demeanor. She succeeded, however, in inspiring her children with the profoundest affection, and especially John, who, when, on an occasion of illness, the doctor ordered her not to be disturbed for some time, kept sentinel at her door for above three hours with an old sword he had picked up, and allowed no one to enter the room. At this time he was between four and five years old, and later he was sent, with his brothers, to Mr. Clarke's school at Enfield, which was then in high repute. Harrow had been at first proposed, but was found to be too expensive.

A maternal uncle of the young Keats's had been an officer in Duncan's ship in the action off Camperdown, and had distinguished himself there both by his signal bravery and by his peculiarly lofty stature, which made him a mark for the enemy's shot; the Dutch admiral said as much to him after the battle. This sailoruncle was the ideal of the boys, and filled their imagination when they went to school with the notion of keeping up the family's reputation for courage. This was manifested in the elder brother by a passive manliness, but in John and Tom by the fiercest pugnacity. John was always fighting; he chose his favorites among his school fellows from those that fought the most readily

*This point, which has been disputed, (Mr. Leigh Hunt making him a year younger,) is decided by the proceedings in Chancery, on the administration of his effects, where he is said to have come of age in October, 1816. Rawlings v. Jennings, June 3d, 1825.

and pertinaciously, nor were the brothers loth to exercise their mettle even on one another. This disposition, however, in all of them, seems to have been combined with much tenderness, and, in John, with a passionate sensibility, which exhibited itself in the strongest contrasts. Convulsions of laughter and of tears were equally frequent with him, and he would pass from one to the other almost without an interval. He gave vent to his impulses with no regard for consequences; he violently attacked an usher who had boxed his brother's ears, and on the occasion of his mother's death, which occurred suddenly, in 1810, (though she had lingered for some years in a consumption,) he hid himself in a nook under the master's desk for several days, in a long agony of grief, and would take no consolation from master or from friend. The sense of humor, which almost universally accompanies a deep sensibility, and is perhaps but the reverse of the medal, abounded in him; from the first, he took infinite delight in any grotesque originality or novel prank of his companions, and, after the exhibition of physical courage, appeared to prize these above all other qualifications. His indifference to be thought well of as "a good boy," was as remarkable as his facility in getting through the daily tasks of the school, which never seemed to occupy his attention, but in which he was never behind the others. His skill in all manly exercises and the perfect generosity of his disposition, made him extremely popular: "he combined," writes one of his schoolfellows, a terrier-like resoluteness of character, with the most noble placability," and another mentions that his extraordinary energy, animation, and ability, impressed them all with a conviction of his future greatness, "but rather in a military or some such active sphere of life, than in the peaceful arena of literature."* This impression was no doubt unconsciously aided by a rare vivacity of countenance and very beautiful features. His eyes, then, as ever, were large and sensitive, flashing with strong emotions or suffused with tender sympathies, and more distinctly reflected the varying impulses of his nature than when under the self-control of maturer years: his hair hung


* Mr. E. Holmes, author of the "Life of Mozart," &c.

in thick brown ringlets round a head diminutive for the breadth of the shoulders below it, while the smallness of the lower limbs, which in later life marred the proportion of his person, was not then apparent, any more than the undue prominence of the lower lip, which afterwards gave his face too pugnacious a character to be entirely pleasing, but at that time only completed such an impression as the ancients had of Achilles,-joyous and glorious youth, everlastingly striving.

After remaining some time at school his intellectual ambition suddenly developed itself: he determined to carry off all the first prizes in literature, and he succeeded: but the object was only obtained by a total sacrifice of his amusements and favorite exercises. Even on the half-holidays, when the school was all out at play, he remained at home translating his Virgil or his Fenelon : it has frequently occurred to the master to force him out into the open air for his health, and then he would walk in the garden with a book in his hand. The quantity of translations on paper he made during the last two years of his stay at Enfield was surprising. The twelve books of the " Æneid” were a portion of it, but he does not appear to have been familiar with much other and more difficult Latin poetry, nor to have even commenced learning the Greek language. Yet Tooke's "Pantheon," Spence's "Polymetis," and Lemprière's "Dictionary," were sufficient fully to introduce his imagination to the enchanted world of old mythology; with this, at once, he became intimately acquainted, and a natural consanguinity, so to say, of intellect, soon domesticated him with the ancient ideal life, so that his scanty scholarship supplied him with a clear perception of classic beauty, and led the way to that wonderful reconstruction of Grecian feeling and fancy, of which his mind became afterwards capable. He does not seem to have been a sedulous reader of other books, but "Robinson Crusoe" and Marmontel's "Incas of Peru" impressed him strongly, and he must have met with Shakspeare, for he told a schoolfellow considerably younger than himself, "that he thought no one could dare to read Macbeth' alone in a house, at two o'clock in the morning."

On the death of their remaining parent, the young Keats's

were consigned to the guardianship of Mr. Abbey, a merchant. About eight thousand pounds were left to be equally divided among the four children. It does not appear whether the wishes of John, as to his destination in life, were at all consulted; but, on leaving school, in the summer of 1810, he was apprenticed, for five years, to Mr. Hammond, a surgeon of some eminence at Edmonton. The vicinity to Enfield enabled him to keep up his connection with the family of Mr. Clarke, where he was always received with familiar kindness. His talents and energy had strongly recommended him to his preceptor, and his affectionate disposition endeared him to his son. In Charles Cowden Clarke, Keats found a friend capable of sympathizing with all his highest tastes and finest sentiments, and in this genial atmosphere his powers gradually expanded. He was always borrowing books, which he devoured rather than read. Yet so little expectation was formed of the direction his ability would take, that when, in the beginning of 1812, he asked for the loan of Spenser's "Fairy Queen," Mr. Clarke remembers that it was supposed in the family that he merely desired, from a boyish ambition, to study an illustrious production of literature. The effect, however, produced on him by that great work of ideality was electrical: he was in the habit of walking over to Enfield at least once a week, to talk over his reading with his friend, and he would now speak of nothing but Spenser. A new world of delight seemed revealed to him: "he ramped through the scenes of the romance," writes Mr. Clarke, "like a young horse turned into a spring meadow :" he reveled in the gorgeousness of the imagery, as in the pleasures of a sense fresh-found: the force and felicity of an epithet (such, for example, as-" the sea-shouldering whale") would light up his countenance with ecstacy, and some fine touch of description would seem to strike on the secret chords of his soul and generate countless harmonies. This, in fact, was not only his open presentation at the Court of the Muses, (for the lines in imitation of Spenser,

"Now Morning from her Orient chamber came,

And her first footsteps touched a verdant hill," &c.,

are the earliest known verses of his composition,) but it was the great impulse of his poetic life, and the stream of his inspiration remained long colored by the rich soil over which it first had flowed. Nor will the just critic of the maturer poems of Keats fail to trace to the influence of the study of Spenser much that at first appears forced and fantastical both in idea and in expression, and discover that precisely those defects which are commonly attributed to an extravagant originality may be distinguished as proceeding from a too indiscriminate reverence for a great but unequal model. In the scanty records which are left of the adolescent years in which Keats became a poet, a Sonnet on Spenser, the date of which I have not been able to trace, itself illustrates this view :

"Spenser! a jealous honorer of thine,

A forester deep in thy midmost trees,

Did, last eve, ask my promise to refine

Some English, that might strive thine ear to please.

But, Elfin-poet! 'tis impossible

For an inhabitant of wintry earth

To rise, like Phoebus, with a golden quill,
Fire-winged, and make a morning in his mirth.
It is impossible to 'scape from toil

O' the sudden, and receive thy spiriting:
The flower must drink the nature of the soil
Before it can put forth its blossoming:

Be with me in the summer days, and I

Will for thine honor and his pleasure try."

A few memorials remain of his other studies. Chaucer evidently gave him the greatest pleasure he afterwards complained of the diction as "annoyingly mixed up with Gallicisms," but at the time when he wrote the Sonnet, at the end of the tale of "The Flower and the Leaf," he felt nothing but the pure breath of nature in the morning of English literature. His friend Clarke, tired with a long walk, had fallen asleep on the sofa with a book in his hand, and when he woke, the volume was enriched with this addition,

« AnteriorContinuar »