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They swayed about upon a rocking horse,
Endymion. — There is a story to the effect that Shelley and Keats agreed that each should write a long poem within a period of six months, and that The Revolt of Islam by Shelley, and Endymion by Keats were the result. Endymion, begun in the spring of 1817, and finished in the beginning of 1818, is a poem of 4,045 lines, an attempt on Keats's part to produce a long poem that would test his power of invention. His friend Bailey has given this account of the production of the poem:
“He wrote and I read — sometimes at the same table, sometimes at separate desks — from breakfast till two or three o'clock. He sat down to his task, which was about fifty lines a day, with his paper before him, and wrote with as much regularity and apparently with as much ease as he wrote his letters. Indeed, he quite acted up to the principle he lays down, “That if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves of a tree, it had better not come at all. Sometimes he fell short of his allotted task, but not often, and he would make it up another day. But he never forced himself. When he had finished his writing for the day, he usually read it over to me, and then read or wrote letters till we went out for a walk.”
In his first prose preface Keats was aggressive and defiant, in the second, the one substituted for the first, he is modest and conciliatory. In it appear such humble lines as these:
"The two first books, and indeed the two last, I feel sensible, are not of such completion as to warrant their passing the press; nor should they, if I thought a year's castigation would do them any good. It will not: the foundations are too sandy." He expresses the hope that he may be thus fitting himself for verses fit to live, and that at some future day he hopes again to try to touch the beautiful mythology of Greece.
While everybody is familiar with the beautiful opening line of Endymion,
"A thing of beauty is a joy forever," very few readers ever have the patience and industry to finish the four books. The poem is prodigal in its excess of imagery, but scant in human interest; it is rich in cleverness and in gleams of poetry, but poor in coherence and definiteness of action. A sympathetic critic writes:
"Admirable truth and charm of imagination, exquisite freshness and felicity of touch, mark ... brief passages ... ; the very soul of poetry breathes in them, and in a hundred others throughout the work; but read further, and you will in almost every case be brought up by hardly tolerable blemishes of execution and of taste." Keats himself wrote, “It is as good as I had power to make it." Shelley expressed himself thus:
"I have read Keats' poem; much praise is due to me for having read it, the author's intention appearing to be that no person should possibly get to the end of it. Yet it is full of some of the highest and finest gleams of poetry."
The appearance of Endymion was greeted by bitter criticisms, one in The Quarterly Review, the other in Blackwood. Both of these magazines were unfriendly to Hunt and his radicalism. It was known that Keats was somewhat a follower of Hunt, and it is supposed that the critics used Keats harshly because of their desire to castigate Hunt and his coterie.
One of the most discussed questions in the life of Keats is, Was Keats killed by the savage reviews ? Byron thought Keats's life was "snuffed out by an article." So did Shelley and many others who have accepted the thought of these poets. Mr. Rossetti, after going over all the evidence, comes to this conclusion:
“In his inmost mind Keats was from first to last raised very far above that level where the petty gales of review criticism blow. .. Nevertheless he was sensitive to derisive criticism, and more especially to personal ridicule, and even (as Haydon records) gave way to his feelings of irritation with reckless and culpable self-abandonment. This passed off partially, and would have passed off entirely — it has left in his letters no trace worth mentioning, and in his poetry no trace at all, other than that of executive power braced up to do constantly better and yet better; but then, about a year and a half after the reviews, supervened his fatal illness which can not be reasonably supposed to have had its root in any critiques, and all the heartache of his unsatisfied love. This last formed the real agony of his waning life: it must have been reinforced to some extent by resentment against a mode of reviewing which would contribute to the thwarting of his poetic ambition, and make him go down into the grave with a 'name writ in water'; but the reviews themselves counted for very little in the last wrestlings of his spirit with death and nothingness. By general constitution of mind few men were less adapted than Keats for being 'snuffed out by an article, or more certain to snuff one out and leave all its ill-savor to its scribe."
Third Volume.- His last volume of poems, bearing the cumbersome title of Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, appeared in July, 1820, at a time when death had already raised its threatening hand against the weakened poet. Among the poems are the priceless Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode to a Nightingale, and La Belle Dame sans Merci. Few poems are more celebrated than the two Odes. The one addressed to a nightingale, although reproducing the spirit of the gloaming, was composed just after breakfast in the spring of 1819 in a period of two or three hours. The two lines
“Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn,"
have been called the two most beautiful lines in all English poetry; and Arlo Bates thinks "their richness of suggestion, their witchery of beguilement, their inexhaustible charm, would alone have been sufficient to prove Keats a great poet.” Mr. Stedman, the American poet and critic, writes in highest praise:
“I make bold to name one of our shorter English lyrics that still seems to me, as it seemed to me ten years ago, the nearest to perfection, the one I would surrender last of all. What should this be save the Ode to a Nightingale, so faultless in its varied unity and in the cardinal qualities of language, melody, and tone? A strain that has a dying fall; music wedded to ethereal passion, to the yearning that floods all Nature.”
On a Grecian Urn is as famous as the Ode to a Nightingale. Satisfying as to form, it delights with its “luxury of sorrow.” There is a tradition that the urn that inspired the ode stood for many years in the garden of Holland House. Palgrave thinks that had the first and last stanzas been equal to the others the ode would be the finest in the English language.
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Though winning near the goal — yet, do not grieve;
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair."
This second stanza of the ode illustrates that quality characteristic of all his odes
extreme susceptibility to delight, close linked with afterthought- pleasure with pang - or that poignant sense of ultimates, a sense delicious and harrowing, which clasps the joy in sadness, and feasts upon the very sadness in joy."
La Belle Dame sans Merci, while not ranking as one of the very best of Keats's poems, is much admired for its union of imagination and reality. Rossetti quotes the poem as “marking
the highest point of romantic imagination to which Keats attained in dealing with human or quasi-human personages, and also the highest level of simplicity along with completeness of art."
By some the Eve of St. Agnes, in view of its length, unity, melody, refinement, and richness of imagery, is considered the finest product of this poet's pen. From the first stanza,
“St. Agnes eve - Ah, bitter chill it was ! ”
to the last where we see the lovers fleeing away into the storm, we are charmed by the witchery of the poet's art. Swinburne calls it "a perfect and unsurpassable study in pure color and clear melody.” It is not the highest type of poetry, because its subject matter is not of that high seriousness characteristic of the highest poetry, but of its kind it is perfect. A stanza like the one here quoted illustrates how the poet's art transmutes the commonplace into the uncommon. It is also well to note how the last lines elevate the whole stanza by their imaginative touch suggestive of things far-off and grand.
"And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
His Character. - It has taken the world a long time to disabuse itself of the notion that Keats was, if not effeminate, a person of such frailty and sensitiveness as to be "snuffed out by an article.” That unfortunately this erroneous notion still obtains in the mind of many is due to the misconceptions of Byron and Shelley, whose knowledge of Keats, though they were his contemporaries, was far inferior to that possessed by any interested intelligent reader of today. His friends who knew him well assert that he was as much like the “ Johnny Keats of