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thought, “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death,” has been abundantly fulfilled, for in the language of Matthew Arnold, “He is with Shakspere.” Of one whose career is cut short at such an early age it is usually said that he was a man of great promise, but of Keats one may say that he was a youth of great fulfillment. And this not because of the sympathy and pity we feel at his untimely death, not because of the seeds of promise in a quantity of work, but because of the
a exquisite perfection of his best work. The remarkableness of his achievement can be all the more appreciated when one considers how utterly unknown would be the names of Scott, Carlyle, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Browning, had their careers ended as early as that of Keats.
The story of his life is a sad one, and it is possible that the judgment of posterity has been mellowed by the recollection of the misfortunes and miseries of the poet who dying asked that there be inscribed upon his tombstone, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water." But after all deductions have been made, after a century of varying criticism, the fame of Keats is established; he stands secure among the Immortals in that Hall of Fame not made by hands, but built “to the music of their harps."
Birth and Parentage. - John Keats was born October 29 or 31, 1795. Genius is inexplicable and crops out in the most unexpected places. No one knowing the parents of Shakspere, Burns, Shelley, or Whittier, would have predicted a poet. Why then need biographers be amazed, and in some cases embarrassed, because the father of Keats was the manager of a livery stable at Finsbury Pavement, Lower Moorfields, London? Thomas Keats
had done with his might whatsoever his hand had found to do in the stable of John Jennings. His character was such that he won the heart and hand of Frances Jennings, the daughter of his employer; his ability was such that Jennings retired and gave the management of the business to Thomas, his son-in-law. Cowden Clarke tells us that the father of Keats was no ordinary man "I perfectly remember the warm terms in which his demeanor used to be canvassed by my parents after he had been to visit his boys.” Of the mother we know but little. It is said she was impulsive, fond of amusement, and passionately attached to John, her first born, who returned her devoted affection. A characteristic story told by all his biographers is the one first reported by Haydon, the painter:
"He was, when an infant, a most violent and ungovernable child. At five years of age or thereabouts he once got hold of a naked sword, and, shutting the door, swore nobody should go out. His mother wanted to do so; but he threatened her so furiously she began to cry, and was obliged to wait till somebody, through the window, saw her position, and came to her rescue." A more pleasing anecdote is another sword incident in which he is represented as standing at the door of her bed-chamber, where she lay seriously ill, with a sword in hand to guard her from being disturbed. However, we are not compelled to believe either story
Education. — The Englishman is likely to send his son to one of the great public schools of England, such as Eton, Rugby, or Harrow. Shelley went to Eton and afterwards to Oxford; Byron attended Harrow, and later entered Cambridge. The parents of Keats, deterred by the expense from sending John to Harrow, selected a school at Enfield kept by the Reverend John Clarke. Here Keats and his brothers received their education. Charles Cowden Clarke, born in 1787 and living until 1877, the son of the head-master, took a special interest in John and became in later years the principal source of our information concerning the schooldays of our poet. It seems that at the beginning John was not studious, but during the last eighteen
months of his stay at Enfield, with characteristic impetuosity, he devoted himself to reading and study. He became especially fond of classical mythology, reading Lemprièré's Classical Dictionary, Tooke's Pantheon, and Spence's Polymetis. This helps to explain how Keats, in no sense a classical scholar, was able to reproduce some phases of the Greek spirit in his poetry. He translated much of the Æneid. Robinson Crusoe and the Incas of Peru were favorite books. He was also acquainted with Shakspere.
His school companions remembered him more as a lively and pugnacious boy than as a devoted student. “He was a boy,' wrote in after years Edward Holmes, “whom any one, from his extraordinary vivacity and personal beauty, might easily fancy would become great - but rather in some military capacity than in literature." Charles Cowden Clarke has written entertainingly:
“He was a favourite with all. Not the less beloved was he for hav·ing a highly pugnacious spirit, which when roused was one of the most picturesque exhibitions — off the stage — I ever saw. ...
. . Upon one occasion, when an usher, on account of some impertinent behaviour, had boxed his brother Tom's ears, John rushed up, put himself into the received posture of offence, and, it was said, struck the usher - who could, so to say, have put him in his pocket. His passion at times was almost ungovernable; and his brother George, being considerably the taller and stronger, used frequently to hold him down by main force, laughing when John was ‘in one of his moods, and was endeavouring to beat him. It was all, however, a wisp-of-straw conflagration; for he had an intensely tender affection for his brothers, and proved it upon the most trying occasions. He was not merely the favourite of all, like a pet prize-fighter, for his terrier courage; but his highmindedness, his utter unconsciousness of a mean motive, his placability, his generosity, wrought so general a feeling in his behalf that I never heard a word of disapproval from anyone, superior or equal, who had known him.”
Apprenticeship. — At fifteen John was taken from school and apprenticed to a surgeon for a period of five years, a term of service which for some reason was never completed. time the boy of fifteen had more than the usual quota of troubles. In 1804 his father had been killed by a fall from his horse, and in 1810 his mother had died of a rapid consumption. John was
passionately attached to his mother. Haydon tells us that the boy "sat up whole nights with her in a great chair, would suffer nobody to give her medicine or even cook her food but himself, and read novels to her in her intervals of ease."
The four children inherited from their grandparents about £8000; this was placed in the care of two guardians, one of whom, Mr. Abbey, assumed the principal responsibility and management of the trust. Upon the whole, the fund was badly managed. Some of John's share was wisely used to pay for his schooling and the premium, £210, of his apprenticeship. Although Keats served part of his apprenticeship and even attended lectures on surgery and in 1815 passed an examination at Apothecaries' Hall, his chief interest was elsewhere. In reply to Clarke's query as to how he liked his hospital studies he once said: “The other day during the lecture there came a sunbeam into the room, and with it a whole troop of creatures floating in the ray; and I was off with them to Oberon and fairyland.”
It is easy to believe that our gifted student paid allegiance to poetry rather than to surgery. While at Edmonton, serving his apprenticeship under Mr. Hammond, he had kept in touch with the Clarke family at Enfield. We find him in 1812 asking for Spenser's Faerie Queene. This wonderful romantic allegory told by the gifted Elizabethan poet completely enthralled the imagination of the young Keats. Spenser is the spiritual father of many a poet; to none was he a more generous father than to the London-born lad who once a week walked to Enfield to discuss the Faerie Queene with Cowden Clarke. “He romped through the scenes of the romance like a young horse turned into a spring meadow.”
Literary Acquaintances. — Among the literary men whom Keats met none exerted a stronger influence than Leigh Hunt. While this influence was not an unmixed good, it would be unfair to deny that Keats was greatly indebted to the vivacious and gifted poet who has made a strong bid for immortality by the exquisite charm of Abou Ben Adhem. Hunt and his brother John had been the managers of a liberal newspaper, the Examiner.
For publishing a stinging criticism on the Prince Regent they were condemned to two years' imprisonment. It is not hard to understand that their imprisonment made them appear as heroes in the eyes of the young enthusiasts for liberalism and democracy. . Hunt had some qualities that prevented him from being either a great poet or a great man. His defect was superficiality. He did, however, have excellencies of no mean order. Writes Mr. Colvin:
“His literary industry was incessant, hardly second to that of Southey himself. He had the liveliest faculty of enjoyment, coupled with a singular quickness of intellectual apprehension for the points and qualities of what he enjoyed; and for the gentler pleasures, graces, and luxuries (to use a word he loved) of literature he is the most accomplished of guides and interpreters." It is to the credit of Keats that he eventually outgrew the direct literary influence of Hunt, and yet one dare not underestimate the helpful influence upon a literary aspirant of an elder man whose amiable generosity of spirit and good taste made him an inspiring companion.
Another decided influence was Haydon, the painter, whom Keats met at Hunt's house in 1816. Haydon and Hunt were each eleven years older than Keats, and were known when our poet was still unheard of. The painter was a man of great ambition and strong will, but his work has failed to satisfy an art-loving public that demands delicacy and vision as well as ambition and pertinacity. In his own day Haydon's loud egotism and early enthusiasm won a temporary hearing. Keats's early admiration is shown in the sonnet beginning,
Great spirits now on earth are sojourning.”
Another friend, about a year younger than Keats, was John Hamilton Reynolds. He was a man of charming personality and promising literary ability. One of his sisters married Thomas Hood. Reynolds later gave up literature for business, and, although a contributor for years to the magazines, never achieved that distinction which his early years had promised.