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Break it not thou! Too surely shalt thou find
What Adonäis is, why fear we to become?"
And a few years after this was written, in the extended burying-ground, a little above the grave of Keats, was placed another tomb-stone, recording that below rested the passionate and worldworn heart of Shelley himself" Cor Cordium.”*
Immediately on hearing of Keats's death, Shelley expressed the profoundest sympathy and a fierce indignation against those whom he believed to have hastened it: in a few months he produced the incomparable tribute of genius to genius, which is of itself the compliment of and the apology for these volumes.
The first copy of the "Adonais" (printed at Pisa) was sent with the following letter to Mr. Severn, then enjoying the traveling pension of the Royal Academy, which had not been granted to any student for a considerable period. He resided for many years at Rome, illustrating the City and Campagna by his artistic fancy, and delighting all travelers who had the pleasure of his acquaintance by his talents and his worth. Nor was the self-devotion of his youth without its fruits in the estimation and respect of those who learned the circumstances of his visit to Italy, and above all, of those who loved the genius, revered the memory, and mourned the destiny of Keats.
PISA, Nov. 29th, 1821.
I send you the elegy on poor Keats-and I wish it were better worth your acceptance. You will see, by the preface, that it was written before I could obtain any particular account of his last moments; all that I still know, was communicated to me by a friend who had derived his information from Colonel Finch; I have ventured to express, as I felt, the respect and admiration which your conduct towards him demands.
In spite of his transcendent genuis, Keats never was, nor never will be, a popular poet; and the total neglect and obscurity in which the astonishing remnants of his mind still lie, was hardly to be dissipated by a writer, who, however he may differ from Keats in more important qualities, at least resembles him in that accidental one, a want of popularity.
I have little hope, therefore, that the poem I send you will excite any attention, nor do I feel assured that a critical notice of his writings would find a single reader. But for these considerations, it had been my intention to collect the remnants of his compositions, and to have published them with a Life and Criticism. Has he left any poems or writings of whatsoever kind, and in whose possession are they? Perhaps you would oblige me by information on this point.
Many thanks for the picture you promise me: I shall consider among the most sacred relics of the past. For my part, I little expected, when I last saw Keats at my friend Leigh Hunt's, that I should survive him.
Should you ever pass through Pisa, I hope to have the pleasure of seeing you, and of cultivating an acquaintance into something pleasant, begun under such melancholy auspices.
Accept, my dear sir, the assurance of my highest esteem, and believe me,
Your most sincere and faithful servant,
PERCY B. SHELLEY.
The last few pages have attempted to awaken a personal interest in the story of Keats almost apart from his literary character a personal interest founded on events that might easily have occurred to a man of inferior ability, and rather affecting from their moral than intellectual bearing. But now
"He has outsoared the shadow of our night;
He is secure, and now can never mourn
A heart grown cold, a head grown gray in vain;
and, ere we close altogether these memorials of his short earthly being, let us revert to the great distinctive peculiarities which singled him out from his fellow-men and gave him his rightful place among "the inheritors of unfulfilled renown."
Let any man of literary accomplishment, though without the habit of writing poetry, or even much taste for reading it, open Endymion at random, (to say nothing of the later and more perfect poems,) and examine the characteristics of the page before him, and I shall be surprised if he does not feel that the whole range of literature hardly supplies a parallel phenomenon. As a psychological curiosity, perhaps Chatterton is more wonderful; but in him the immediate ability displayed is rather the full comprehension of and identification with the old model, than the effluence of creative genius. In Keats, on the contrary, the originality in the use of his scanty materials, his expansion of them to the proportions of his own imagination, and above all, his field of diction and expression extending so far beyond his knowledge of literature, is quite inexplicable by any of the ordinary processes of mental education. If his classical learning had been deeper, his seizure of the full spirit of Grecian beauty would have been less surprising; if his English reading had been more extensive, his inexhaustible vocabulary of picturesque and mimetic words could more easily be accounted for; but here is a surgeon's apprentice, with the ordinary culture of the middle classes, rivaling in æsthetic perceptions of antique life and thought the most careful scholars of his time and country, and reproducing these impressions in a phraseology as complete and unconventional as if he had mastered the whole history and the frequent variations of the English tongue, and elaborated a mode of utterance commensurate with his vast ideas.
The artistic absence of moral purpose may offend many readers, and the just harmony of the coloring may appear to others a displeasing monotony, but I think it impossible to lay the
book down without feeling that almost every line of it contains solid gold enough to be beaten out, by common literary manufacturers, into a poem of itself. Concentration of imagery, the hitting off a picture at a stroke, the clear decisive word that brings the thing before you and will not let it go, are the rarest distinctions of the early exercise of the faculties. So much more is usually known than digested by sensitive youth, so much more felt than understood, so much more perceived than methodized, that diffusion is fairly permitted in the earlier stages of authorship, and it is held to be one of the advantages, amid some losses, of maturer intelligence, that it learns to fix and hold the beauty it apprehends, and to crystalize the dew of its morning. Such examples to the contrary, as the "Windsor Forest" of Pope, are rather scholastic exercises of men who afterwards became great, than the first-fruits of such genius, while all Keats's poems are early productions, and there is nothing beyond them but the thought of what he might have become. Truncated as is this intellectual life, it is still a substantive whole, and the complete statue, of which such a fragment is revealed to us, stands perhaps solely in the temple of the imagination. There is indeed progress, continual and visible, in the works of Keats, but it is towards his own ideal of a poet, not towards any defined and tangible model. All that we can do is to transfer that ideal to ourselves, and to believe that if Keats had lived, that is what he would have been.
Contrary to the expectation of Mr. Shelley, the appreciation of Keats by men of thought and sensibility gradually rose after his death, until he attained the place he now holds among the poets of his country. By his side too the fame of this his friend and eulogist ascended, and now they rest together, associated in the history of the achievements of the human imagination; twin stars, very cheering to the mental mariner tost on the rough ocean of practical life and blown about by the gusts of calumny and misrepresentation, but who, remembering what they have undergone, forgets not that he also is divine.
Nor has Keats been without his direct influence on the poetical literature that succeeded him. The most noted, and perhaps the most original, of present poets, bears more analogy to him
than to any other writer, and their brotherhood has been well recognized, in the words of a critic, himself a man of redundant fancy, and of the widest perception of what is true and beautiful, lately cut off from life by a destiny as mysterious as that which has been here recounted. Mr. Sterling writes :-" Lately, I have been reading again some of Alfred Tennyson's second volume, and with profound admiration of his truly lyric and idyllic genius. There seems to me to have been more epic power in Keats, that fiery beautiful meteor; but they are two most true and great poets. When we think of the amount of the recognition they have received, one may well bless God that poetry is in itself strength and joy, whether it be crowned by all mankind, or left alone in its own magic hermitage.'
And this is in truth the moral of the tale. In the life which here lies before us, plainly as a child's, the action of the poetic faculty is most clearly visible: it long sustains in vigor and delight a temperament naturally melancholy, and which, under such adverse circumstances, might well have degenerated into angry discontent: it imparts a wise temper and a courageous hope to a physical constitution doomed to early decay, and it confines within manly affections and generous passion a nature so impressible that sensual pleasures and sentimental tenderness might easily have enervated and debased it. There is no defect in the picture which the exercise of this power does not go far to remedy, and no excellence which it does not elevate and extend.
One still graver lesson remains to be noted. Let no man, who is in any thing above his fellows, claim, as of right, to be valued or understood: the vulgar great are comprehended and adored, because they are in reality in the same moral plane with those who admire; but he who deserves the higher reverence must himself convert the worshiper. The pure and lofty life; the generous and tender use of the rare creative faculty; the
* Sterling's Essays and Tales, p. clxviii.
+ Coleridge in page 89, vol. ii., of his " Table Talk," asserts that, when Keats (whom he describes as "a loose, slack, not well-dressed youth ") met him in a lane near Highgate, and they shook hands, he said to Mr. Hunt, "there is death in that hand." This was at the period when Keats first knew Mr. Hunt, and was, apparently, in perfect health.