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"This pleasant tale is like a little copse:" &c.*
The strange tragedy of the fate of Chatterton, "the marvelous Boy, the sleepless soul that perished in its pride," so disgraceful to the age in which it occurred, and so awful a warning to all others of the cruel evils which the mere apathy and ignorance of the world can inflict on genius, is a frequent subject of allusion and interest in Keats's letters and poems, and some lines of the following invocation bear a mournful anticipatory analogy to the close of the beautiful elegy which Shelley hung over another early grave.
"O Chatterton! how very sad thy fate!
How soon the film of death obscured that eye
On earth the good man base detraction bars
Not long before this, Keats had become familiar with the works of Lord Byron, and indited a Sonnet, of little merit, to him in December, 1814:
"Byron! how sweetly sad thy melody!
As if soft Pity, with unusual stress,
Had touched her plaintive lute, and thou, being by,
* See the "Literary Remains."
As when a cloud the golden moon doth veil,
Confused as are the imagery and diction of these lines, their feeling suggests a painful contrast with the harsh judgment and late remorse of their object, the proud and successful poet, who never heard of this imperfect utterance of boyish sympathy and respect.
The impressible nature of Keats would naturally incline him to erotic composition, but his early love-verses are remarkably deficient in beauty and even in passion. Some which remain in manuscript are without any interest, and those published in the little volume of 1817, are the worst pieces in it. The world of personal emotion was then far less familiar to him than that of fancy, and indeed it seems to have been long before he descended from the ideal atmosphere in which he dwelt so happily, into the troubled realities of human love. Not, however, that the creatures even of his young imagination were unimbued with natural affections; so far from it, it may be reasonably conjectured that it was the interfusion of ideal and sensual life which rendered the Grecian mythology so peculiarly congenial to the mind of Keats, and when the "Endymion" comes to be critically considered, it will be found that its excellence consists in its clear comprehension of that ancient spirit of beauty, to which all outward perceptions so excellently ministered, and which undertook to ennoble and purify, as far as was consistent with their retention, the instinctive desires of mankind.
Friendship, generally ardent in youth, would not remain without its impression in the early poems of Keats, and a congeniality of literary dispositions appears to have been the chief impulse to these relations. With Mr. Felton Mathew,* to whom his first published Epistle was addressed, he appears to have enjoyed a
* A gentleman of high literary merit, now employed in the administration of the Poor Law.
high intellectual sympathy. This friend had introduced him to agreeable society, both of books and men, and those verses were written just at the time when Keats became fully aware that he had no real interest in the profession he was sedulously pursuing, and was already in the midst of that sad conflict between the outer and the inner worlds, which is too often, perhaps always in some degree, the Poet's heritage in life. That freedom from the bonds of conventional phraseology which so clearly designates true genius, but which, if unwatched and unchastened, will continually outrage the perfect form that can alone embalm the beautiful idea and preserve it for ever, is there already manifest, and the presence of Spenser shows itself not only by quaint expressions and curious adaptations of rhyme, but by the introduction of the words " and make a sun-shine in a shady place," applied to the power of the Muse. Mr. Mathew retains his impression that at that time "the eye of Keats was more critical than tender, and so was his mind: he admired more the external decorations than felt the deep emotions of the Muse. He delighted in leading you through the mazes of elaborate description, but was less conscious of the sublime and the pathetic. He used to spend many evenings in reading to me, but I never observed the tears in his eyes nor the broken voice which are indicative of extreme sensibility." The modification of a nature at first passionately susceptible and the growing preponderance of the imagination is a frequent phenomenon in poetical psychology.
To his brother George, then a clerk in Mr. Abbey's house, his next Epistle is addressed, and Spenser is there too. But by this time the delightful complacency of conscious genius had already dawned upon his mind and gives the poem an especial interest. After a brilliant sketch of the present happiness of the poet, "his proud eye looks through the film of death;" he thinks of leaving behind him lays
"of such a dear delight,
he foresees that the patriot will thunder out his numbers,
"To startle princes from their easy slumbers;"
and while he checks himself in what he calls "this mad ambition," yet he owns he has felt
"relief from pain,
When some bright thought has darted through my brain-
Although this foretaste of fame is in most cases a delusion, (as the fame itself may be a greater delusion still,) yet it is the best and purest drop in the cup of intellectual ambition. It is enjoyed, thank God, by thousands, who soon learn to estimate their own capacities aright and tranquilly submit to the obscure and transitory condition of their existence it is felt by many, who look back on it in after years with a smiling pity to think they were so deceived, but who nevertheless recognize in that aspiration the spring of their future energies and usefulness in other and far different fields of action; and the few, in whom the prophecy is accomplished-who become what they have believed-will often turn away with uneasy satiety from present satisfaction to the memory of those happy hopes, to the thought of the dear delight they then derived from one single leaf of those laurels that now crowd in at the window, and which the hand is half inclined to push away to let in the fresh air of heaven.
"As to my Sonnets-though none else should heed them,
occur in this Epistle, and several of these have been preserved besides those published or already mentioned. Some, indeed, are mere experiments in this difficult but attractive form of composition, and others evidently refer to forgotten details of daily life and are unmeaning without them. A few of unequal power and illustrative of the progress of genius should not be forgotten, while those contained in the first volume of his Poems are perhaps the most remarkable pieces in it. They are as noble in
thought, rich in expression, and harmonious in rhythm as any in the language, and among the best may be ranked that "On first looking into Chapman's Homer." Unable as he was to read the original Greek, Homer had as yet been to him a name of solemn significance, and nothing more. His friend and literary counselor, Mr. Clarke, happened to borrow Chapman's translation, and having invited Keats to read it with him one evening, they continued their study till daylight. He describes Keats's delight as intense, even to shouting aloud, as some passage of especial energy struck his imagination. It was fortunate that he was introduced to that heroic company through an interpretation which preserves so much of the ancient simplicity, and in a metre that, after all various attempts, including that of the hexameter, still appears the best adapted, from its pauses and its length, to represent in English the Greek epic verse. An accomplished scholar may perhaps be unwilling, or unable, to understand how thoroughly the imaginative reader can fill up the necessary defects of any translation which adheres, as far as it may, to the tone and spirit of the original, and does not introduce fresh elements of thought, incongruous ornaments, or cumbrous additions; be it bald and tame, he can clothe and color it—be it harsh and ill-jointed, he can perceive the smoothness and completeness that has been lost ; only let it not be like Pope's Homer, a new work with an old name—a portrait, itself of considerable power and beauty, but in which the features of the individual are scarcely to be recognized. The Sonnet in which these his first impressions are concentrated, was left the following day on Mr. Clarke's table, realizing the idea of that form of verse expressed by Keats himself in his third Epistle, as
This Epistle is written in a bolder and freer strain than the others; the Poet in excusing himself for not having addressed his Muse to Mr. Clarke before, on account of his inferiority to the great masters of song, implies that he is growing conscious of a possible brotherhood with them; and his terse and true descrip