Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Keats Biography in Chamber's Cyclopedia (1863).

John Keats was born in London, October 29, 1795, in the house of his grandfather, who kept a livery stable at Moorfields. He received his education at Enfield, and in his fifteenth year was apprenticed to a surgeon. Most of his time, however, was devoted to the cultivation of his literary talents, which were early conspicuous. During his apprenticeship, he made and carefully wrote out a literal translation of Virgil's Aeneid and instructed himself also in some knowledge of Greek and Italian. One of his earliest friends and critics was Mr. Leigh Hunt, who, being shewn some of his poetical pieces, was struck, he says, with the exuberant specimens of genuine though young poetry that were laid before him, and the promise of which was seconded by the fine fervid countenance of the writer. A volume of these juvenile poems was published in 1817. In 1818 Keats published his Endymion, a Poetical Romance, defective in many parts, but evincing rich though undisciplined powers of imagination. The poem was criticised, in a strain of contemptuous severity, by Mr. John Wilson Croker in the Quarterly Review; and such was the sensitiveness of the young poet -- panting for distinction, and flattered by a few private friends -- that the critique imbittered his existence. 'The first effects,' says Shelley, 'are described to me to have resembled insanity and it was by assiduous watching that he was restrained from effecting purposes of suicide. The agony of his sufferings at length produced the rupture of a blood-vessel in the lungs, and the usual process of consumption appears to have begun.' The process had begun, as was too soon apparent; but the disease was a family one, and would probably have appeared had no hostile criticism existed. Mr. Monckton Milnes, Keats's biographer, states that

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the young poet profited by the attacks of the critics, their effect being 'to purify his style, correct his tendency to exaggeration, enlarge his poetical studies, and produce, among other improved efforts, that very Hyperion which called forth from Byron a eulogy as violent and unqualified as the former onslaught.' Byron had termed the juvenile poetry of Keats 'the driveling idiotism of the manikin.' Keats's poetry falling into the hands of Jeffrey, he criticised it in the Edinburgh Review, in a spirit of kindliness and just appreciation which formed a strong contrast to the criticism in the Quarterly. But this genial critique did not appear till 1820, too late to cheer the then dying poet. 'Mr. Keats,' says the eloquent critic, 'is we understand still a very young man; and his whole works, indeed, bear evidence enough of the fact. They manifestly require, therefore, all the indulgence that can be claimed for a first attempt; but we think it no less plain that they deserve it; for they are flushed all over with the rich lights of fancy, and so coloured and bestrown with the flowers of poetry, that, even while perplexed and bewildered in their labyrinths, it is impossible to resist the intoxication of their sweetness, or to shut our hearts to the enchantments they so lavishly present. The models upon which he has formed himself in the Endymion, the earliest and by much the most considerable of his poems, are obviously the Faithful Shepherdess of Fletcher, and the Sad Shepherd of Ben Jonson, the exquisite meters and inspired diction of which he has copied with great boldness and fidelity; and, like his great
originals, has also contrived to impart to the whole piece that true rural and poetical air which breathes only in them and in Theocritus -- which is at once homely and majestic, luxurious and rude, and sets before us the genuine sights, and sounds, and smells of the country, with all the magic and grace of Elysium. His subject has the disadvantage of being mythological; and in the respect, as well as on account of the raised and rapturous tone it consequently assumes, his poetry may be better compared perhaps to the Comus of Milton, of which, also, there are many traces of imitation. The great distinction, however, between him and these divine authors is, that imagination in them is subordinate to reason and judgment, while, with him, it is paramount and supreme; that their ornaments and images are employed to embellish and recommend just sentiments, engaging incidents, and natural characters, while his are poured out without measure or restraint, and with no apparent design but to unburden the breast of the author, and give vent to the overflowing vein of his fancy. There is no work from which a malicious critic could cull more matter for ridicule, or select more obscure, unnatural or absurd passages. But we do not take that to be our office; and just beg leave, on the contrary, to say, that any one who, on this account, would represent the whole poem as despicable, must either have no notion of poetry or no regard to truth.' The readers of poetry confirmed this judgment; and the genius of the author was still further displayed in his latest volume, Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St. Agnes, &c. As a last effort for life, in September 1820, Keats tried the milder climate of Italy -- going first to Naples, and from thence to Rome. 'He suffered so much in his lingering,' says Mr. Leigh Hunt, 'that he used to watch the countenance of his physician for the favorable and fatal sentence, and express his regret when he found it delayed. Yet no impatience escaped him -- he was manly and gentle to the last, and grateful for all services. A little before he died, he said that he felt the daisies growing over him.' To his friend Mr. Severn, who attended him in his last moments, he said that on his grave-stone should be this inscription: 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water.' He died on the 27th of December 1820, and was buried, as his friend Shelley relates, 'in the romantic and lonely cemetery of the Protestants in that city, under the pyramid which is the tomb of Cestius, and the massy walls and towers, now mouldering and desolate, which formed the circuit of ancient Rome. The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.'*


* Preface to Adonais; an elegy on the death of Keats. In Shelley's correspondence is a letter by Mr. Finch giving an account of Keats's last moments, less pleasing, but much more striking than that of Hunt. 'Almost despairing of his case, he left his native shores by sea in a merchant-vessel for Naples, where he arrived, having received no benefit during the passage, and brooding over the most melancholy and mortifying reflections; and nursing a deeply rooted disgust to life and to the world, owing to having been infamously treated by the very persons whom his generosity had rescued from want and woe. He journeyed from Naples to Rome, and occupied, at the latter place, lodgings which I had, on former occasions, more than once inhabited. Here he soon took to his bed, from which he never rose more. His passions were always violent, and his sensibility most keen. It is extraordinary that, proportionally as his strength of body declined, these acquired fresh vigor; and his temper at length became outrageously violent, as to injure himself, and annoy every one around him. He eagerly wished for death. After leaving England, I believe that he seldom courted the muse. He was accompanied by a friend of mine, Mr. Severn, a young painter, who will, I think, one day be the Coryphaeus of the English school. He left all, and sacrificed every prospect, to accompany and watch over his friend Keats. For many weeks previous to his death, he would see no one but Mr. Severn, who had almost risked his own life by unwearied attendance upon his friend, who rendered his situation doubly unpleasant by the violence of his passions, exhibited even towards him, so much that he might be judged insane. His intervals of remorse, too, were poignantly bitter. I believe that Mr. Severn, the heir of what little Keats left behind him at Rome, has only come into possession of very few manuscripts of his friend. The poetical volume which was the inseparable companion of Keats and which he took for his most darling model in composition, was the minor poems of Shakespeare.' Byron -- who thought the death of Keats a loss to our literature, and who said: 'his fragment of Hyperion seems actually inspired by the Titans, and is as sublime as Eschylus' -- alludes, playfully and wittily, but incorrectly, in his Don Juan, to the death of the young poet:

John Keats, who was killed off by one critique,
Just as he really promised something great,
If not intelligible, without Greek
Contrived to talk of about the gods of late,
Much as they might have been supposed to speak.
Poor fellow! His was an untoward fate;
'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,
Should let itself be snuffed out by an article.


Cyclopedia of English Literature ed. by Robert Chambers. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Co., 1863. II 363-4.



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