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In his Adonais Shelley has paid a most exquisite tribute to the memory of Keats. When we read lines like these,
Alas! that all we loved of him should be,
we naturally infer that Shelley and Keats had been warm personal friends. However, they had but very little of direct association. Keats met Shelley at Hunt's home at Hampstead, in 1817. “Keats,” says Hunt, “ did not take to Shelley as kindly as Shelley took to him. . . . Keats, being a little too sensitive on the score of his origin, felt inclined to see in every man of birth a sort of natural enemy." Upon this Mr. Colvin comments:
" Pride and social sensitiveness apart, we can imagine that a full understanding was not easy between them, and that Keats, with his strong vein of every-day humanity, sense, and humor, and his innate openness of mind, may well have been as much repelled as attracted by the unearthly ways and accents of Shelley, his passionate negation of the world's creeds and the world's law, and his intense proselytizing ardor.”
Literary Progress. — In 1817 appeared a small volume of verse by Keats. The poems had been written during the period between November, 1815, and April, 1817, a time in which both the archaic Spenser and the modern Leigh Hunt exerted their strongest influence. In a later paragraph will be found a fuller discussion of these poems; at present it suffices to say that they brought Keats neither fame nor money. He was not discouraged, however, but planned to exercise his power of invention by the composition of a long poem, Endymion. He even found publishers who had faith sufficient to advance him money to carry on his project. In April, 1818, Endymion was published, and in June of that year we find Keats seeking rest and refreshment in a pedestrian tour with his friend Brown. In the meantime his brother George with his young bride, Miss Wylie, the “G. A. W.” of the sonnet, Nymph of the downward smile, had determined to seek their fortune in America. Keats and Brown took leave of these adventurers at Liverpool, and then tramped
into the Lake country and the Western Highlands. There is an oft-repeated story that a short time before this tour Coleridge had met Keats in a lane near Highgate and after shaking hands with him had said in an undertone to Hunt, “ There is death in that hand.” But on this excursion Keats acted like a man in robust health, walking twenty miles from day to day. Towards the end of his trip he did complain of a cold and a sore throat, and upon the advice of a physician returned to London. During the next few months the brothers, John and Tom, lived together at Hampstead, where Tom died, not unexpectedly, though to the severe grief of his affectionate brother. This was in the beginning of December, 1818. His third and last volume of poems appeared in 1820.
Love Affair. - After the death of Tom, John and Brown lived together in Hampstead, where in the house next to them lived the Brawnes, a mother with her son and two daughters. With Miss Fanny Brawne Keats fell deeply in love. Whether she deserved the devotion of the ardent poet is a question, as it is said that after the death of Keats she would refer to him as that “ foolish young poet who was in love with me.” And W. M. Rossetti thinks that her face was not one to attract either an artist or a poet, but that it did attract one poet is seen in the profuse admiration poured out in his letters. One wishes that some of these letters with their abandonment of feeling had never been published, or even written; and also that Fanny Brawne had been one of those generous and refined souls whom for Keats to love would have been both a liberal education and a solace in his last days on earth. The following extract from one of his letters to Miss Brawne is full of the bitterness of an unhappy lover:
"I do not think my health will improve much while I am separated from you. For all this I am averse to seeing you: I cannot bear flashes of light, and return into my glooms again. I am not so unhappy now as I would be had I seen you yesterday. ... I am sickened at the brute world you are smiling with. I hate men, and women more. I see nothing but thorns for the future. ... I wish I could infuse a little confidence of human nature into my heart: I cannot muster any. The world is too
brutal for me. I am glad there is such a thing as the grave — I am sure I shall never have any rest till I get there."
This abandonment to despair is not so serious a defect as his lack of dignity and self-control as revealed in other letters to Miss Brawne. Matthew Arnold comments with some bluntness on this phase of the poet's character as having something "underbred and ignoble, as of a youth ill brought up, without the training which teaches us that we must put some constraint upon our feelings and upon the expression of them.”
Closing Days. — The closing days of Keats were days of gloom and disappointment, the gloom of a man who with high aspirations to become a poet felt that he had failed, the disappoinment of a lover who knew he never could attain his ideal. His most serious defect, however, was his lack of health, for with vigor and length of days he might have realized his ambition to be known as a poet, and it is probable that he would have married Fanny Brawne. His own comprehension of the limitations imposed on him by wasting disease is seen in a letter to his friend Reynolds:
"I think if I had a free and healthy and lasting organization of heart, and lungs as strong as an ox's, so as to be able to bear unhurt the shock of extreme thought and sensation without weariness, I could pass my life very nearly alone, though it should last eighty years. But I feel my body too weak to support me to the height; I am obliged continually to check myself, and be nothing."
When the public gave a more friendly reception to his last volume of poems in 1820, Keats was already too weak to enjoy to che full the voice of praise and the tonic of approval. His family had a tendency to what is now known as tuberculosis. On the night of February 3, 1820, occurred this incident as given by Lord Houghton:
“One night about eleven o'clock Keats returned home in a state of strange physical excitement. . . . He told his friend he had been outside the stage-coach, had received a severe chill, was a little fevered; but added: 'I don't feel it now. He was easily persuaded to go to bed, and, as he leapt into the cold sheets, before his head was on the pillow, he slightly coughed, and said: “That is blood from my mouth. Bring me the candle: let me see this blood.' He gazed stedfastly some moments at the ruddy stain, and then, looking into his friend's face with an expression of sudden calmness never to be forgotten, said: 'I know the color of that blood - it is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that color. That drop is my death warrant; I must die.'”
In September, 1820, Keats embarked to go to Italy, hoping to benefit by a change of climate. But fair and sunshiny Italy was unable at this last stage of the disease to bring back that health which had so early in life slipped away. During his last days he was faithfully attended by his devoted friend, Joseph Severn, to whom we are indebted for this account of the end :
“ February 27. He is gone. He died with the most perfect ease — he seemed to go to sleep. On the twenty-third, about four, the approaches of death came on. Severn -I- lift me up. I am dying - I shall die easy. Don't be frightened: be firm, and thank God it has come.' I lifted him up in my arms. . . . he gradually sank into death, so quiet that I still thought he slept. I cannot say more now. I am broken down by four nights' watching, no sleep since, and my poor Keats gone. I followed his dear body to the grave on Monday (February 26), with many English.”
The Volume of 1817.— The advent of a new poet is not heralded with the pomp and ceremony attending the birth of a royal prince; so it is not surprising that the world paid but little attention to the modest volume of 1817 with its motto from Spenser:
“What more felicity can fall to creature
Keats himself once said in regard to the popularity of this volume, “It was read by some dozen of my friends, who liked it; and some dozen whom I was unacquainted with, who did not.”
Undoubtedly the best thing in the volume is the magnificent sonnet, On First Looking into Chapman's Homer - one of the finest sonnets in the English language:
“ Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
When a new planet swims into his ken;
He stared at the Pacific - and all his men
Silent, upon a peak in Darien." While this is undoubtedly the best production in the book, those critics who say it is the only good thing in the first volume are too stringent in their criticism. The two sonnets, “O solitude! if I must with thee dwell,” and “Keen, fitful gusts are whispering here and there," are not without decided merit. To my mind the most important contribution to the volume is the long poem Sleep and Poetry, a poem wherein Keats gives free and full expression to his revolt against the narrowness and formalism of the poetic creed that had dominated English poetry during the century before his time. He demands that the imagination be given freedom to fly into the unbounded empyrean, that passion be permitted to penetrate where beauty lies hid. Coleridge and Wordsworth have given us a more mature expression of this creed.
“ But neither (writes Colvin) has left any enunciation of theory having power to thrill the ear and haunt the memory like the rhymes of this young untrained recruit in the cause of poetic liberty and the return to nature.” This is one of the most frequently quoted passages :
“ Yes, a schism