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It is now fifteen years ago that I met, at the villa of my distinguished friend, Mr. Landor, on the beautiful hill-side of Fiesole, Mr. Charles Brown, a retired Russia-merchant, with whose name I was already familiar as the generous protector and devoted friend of the Poet Keats. Mr. Severn, the artist, whom I had known at Rome, had already satisfied much of my curiosity respecting a man, whom the gods had favored with great genius and early death, but had added to one gift the consciousness of public disregard, and to the other the trial of severe physical suffering. With the works of Keats I had always felt a strong poetical sympathy, accompanied by a ceaseless wonder at their wealth of diction and of their imagery, which was increased by the consciousness that all that he had produced was rather a promise than an accomplishment; he had ever seemed to me to have done more at school in poetry, than almost any other man who had made it the object of mature life. This adolescent character had given me an especial interest in the moral history of this Marcellus of the empire of English song, and when my imagination measured what he might have become by what he was, it stood astounded at the result.
Therefore the circumstances of his life and writings appeared to me of a high literary interest, and I looked on whatever unpublished productions of his that fell in my way with feelings perhaps not in all cases warranted by their intrinsic merits. Few of these remains had escaped
the affectionate care of Mr. Brown, and he told me that he only deferred their publication till his return to England. This took place two or three years afterwards, and the preliminary arrangements for giving them to the world were actually in progress, when the accident of attending a meeting on the subject of the colonization of New Zealand altered Mr. Brown's plans, and determined him to transfer his fortunes and the closing years of his life to the antipodes. Before he left this country he confided to my care all his collections of Keats's writings, accompanied with a biographical notice, and I engaged to use them to the best of my ability for the purpose of vindicating the character and advancing the fame of his honored friend.
As soon as my intention was made known, I received from the friends and acquaintances of the poet the kindest assistance. His earliest guide and companion in literature, Mr. Cowden Clarke, and his comrades in youthful study, Mr. Holmes and Mr. Felton Mathew, supplied me with all their recollections of his boyhood; Mr. Reynolds, whom Mr. Leigh Hunt, in the "Examiner" of 1816, associated with Shelley and Keats as the three poets of promise whom time was ripening, contributed the rich store of correspondence, which began with Keats's introduction into literary society, and never halted to the last; Mr. Haslam and Mr. Dilke aided me with letters and remembrances, and many persons who casually heard of my project forwarded me information that circumstances had placed in their way. To the enlightened publishers, Messrs. Taylor and Hessey, and to Mr. Ollier, I am also indebted for willing co-operation.
Mr. Leigh Hunt had already laid his offering on the shrine of his beloved brother in the trials and triumphs of genius, and could only encourage me by his interest and sympathy.
I have already mentioned Mr. Severn, without whom I should probably have never thought of undertaking the task, and who now offered me the additional inducement of an excellent portrait of his friend to prefix to the book: he has also in his possession a small full-length of Keats sitting reading, which is considered a striking and characteristic resemblance.
But perhaps the most valuable, as the most confidential communica
tion I received, was from the gentleman who has married the widow of George Keats, and who placed at my disposal, with the consent of the family, the letters George received from his brother after he emigrated to America. I have taken the liberty of omitting some few unimportant passages which referred exclusively to individuals or transitory circumstances, regarding this part of the correspondence as of a more private character than any other that has fallen into my hands.
I am not indeed unprepared for the charge, that I have published in this volume much that might well have been omitted, both for its own irrelevancy, and from the decent reverence that should always veil, more or less, the intimate family concerns and the deep internal life of those that are no more. Never has such remonstrance been more ably expressed than in the following passage from Mr. Wordsworth's "Letter to a friend of Robert Burns,"* and which, on account of the rarity of the pamphlet, I here transcribe :
'Biography, though differing in some essentials from works of fiction, is nevertheless like them an art-an art, the laws of which are determined by the imperfections of our nature and the constitution of society. Truth is not here, as in the sciences and in natural philosophy, to be sought without scruple, and promulgated for its own sake upon the mere chance of its being serviceable, but only for obviously justifying purposes, moral or intellectual. Silence is a privilege of the grave, a right of the departed; let him, therefore, who infringes that right by speaking publicly of, for, or against those who cannot speak for themselves, take heed that he open not his mouth without a sufficient sanction. * * * * The general
obligation upon which I have insisted is especially binding upon those who undertake the biography of authors. Assuredly there is no cause why the lives of that class of men should be pried into with diligent curiosity, and laid open with the same disregard of reserve which may sometimes be expedient in composing the history of men who have borne an active part in the world. Such thorough knowledge of the good and bad qualities of
these latter, as can only be obtained by a scrutiny of their private bias, conduces to explain, not only their own public conduct, but that of those with whom they have acted. Nothing of this applies to authors, considered merely as authors. Our business is with their books, to understand and to enjoy them. And of poets more especially it is true, that if their works be good, they contain within themselves all that is necessary to their being comprehended and relished. It should seem that the ancients thought in this manner, for of the eminent Greek and Roman poets, few and scanty memorials were, I believe, ever prepared, and fewer still are preserved. It is delightful to read what, in the happy exercise of his own genius, Horace chooses to communicate of himself and of his friends; but I confess I am not so much a lover of knowledge independent of its quality, as to make it likely that it would much rejoice me were I to hear that records of the Sabine poet and his contemporaries, composed upon the Boswellian plan, had been unearthed among the ruins of Herculaneum."
With this earnest warning before me, I hesitated some time as to the application of my materials. It was easy for me to construct out of them a signal monument of the worth and genius of Keats: by selecting the circumstances and the passages that illustrated the extent of his abilities, the purity of his objects and the nobleness of his nature, I might have presented to the world a monography, apparently perfect, and at least as real as those which the affection or pride of the relatives or dependents of remarkable personages generally prefix to their works. But I could not be unconscious that, if I were able to present to the public view the true personality of a man of genius, without either wounding the feelings of mourning friends or detracting from his existing reputation, I should be doing a much better thing in itself, and one much more becoming that office of biographer, which I, a personal stranger to the individual, had consented to undertake. For, if I left the memorials of Keats to tell their own tale, they would in truth be the book, and my business would be almost limited to their collection and arrangement; whereas, if I only regarded them as the materials of my own work, the general effect would
chiefly depend on my ability of construction, and the temptation to render the facts of the story subservient to the excellence of the work of art would never have been absent.
I had else to consider which procedure was most likely to raise the character of Keats in the estimation of those most capable of judging it. I saw how grievously he was misapprehended even by many who wished to see in him only what was best. I perceived that many, who heartily admired his poetry, looked on it as the production of a wayward, erratic genius, self-indulgent in conceits, disrespectful of the rules and limitations of Art, not only unlearned but careless of knowledge, not only exaggerated but despising proportion. I knew that his moral disposition was assumed to be weak, gluttonous of sensual excitement, querulous of severe judgment, fantastical in its tastes, and lackadaisical in its sentiments. He was all but universally believed to have been killed by a stupid, savage article in a review, and to the compassion generated by his untoward fate he was held to owe a certain personal interest, which his poetic reputation hardly justified.
When, then, I found, from the undeniable documentary evidence of his inmost life, that nothing could be further from the truth than this opinion, it seemed to me, that a portrait, so dissimilar from the general assumption, would hardly obtain credit, and might rather look like the production of a paradoxical partiality than the result of conscientious inquiry. I had to show that Keats, in his intellectual character, reverenced simplicity and truth above all things, and abhorred whatever was merely strange and strong-that he was ever learning and ever growing more conscious of his own ignorance, that his models were always the highest and the purest, and that his earnestness in aiming at their excellence, was only equal to the humble estimation of his own efforts that his poetical course was one of distinct and positive progress, exhibiting a self-command and self-direction which enabled him to understand and avoid the faults even of the writers he was most naturally inclined to esteem, and to liberate himself at once, not only from the fetters of literary partisanship, but even from the subtler influences and associations of the