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The Problem of John Keats

Written by: J. Middleton Murry

It is a subject for congratulation that a second edition of Sir Sidney Colvin's life of Keats[6] has been called for by the public: first, because it is a good, a very good book, and secondly, because all evidence of a general curiosity concerning a poet so great and so greatly to be loved must be counted for righteousness. The impassioned and intimate sympathy which is felt—as we may at least conclude—by a portion of the present generation for Keats is a motion of the consciousness which stands in a right and natural order. Keats is with us; and it argues much for a generous elasticity in Sir Sidney Colvin's mind, which we have neither the right nor the custom to expect in an older generation, that he should have had more than a sidelong vision of at least one aspect of the community between his poet-hero and a younger race which has had the destiny to produce far more heroes than poets. Commenting upon the inability of the late Mr Courthope to appreciate Keats, Sir Sidney writes:—

'He supposed that Keats was indifferent to history or politics. But of history he was in fact an assiduous reader, and the secret of his indifference to politics, so far as it existed, was that those of his own time had to men of his years and way of thinking been a disillusion,—that the saving of the world from the grip of one great overshadowing tyranny had but ended in reinstating a number of ancient and minor tyrannies less interesting but not less tyrannical. To that which lies behind and above politics and history to the general destinies, aspirations, and tribulations of the race, he was, as we have seen, not indifferent but only tragically and acutely sensitive.'

[Footnote 6: John Keats: His Life and Poetry, His Friends, Critics, and After-fame. By Sidney Colvin. Second edition. (Macmillan.)]

We believe that both the positive and the negative of that vindication might be exemplified among chosen spirits to-day, living or untimely dead; but we desire, not to enlist Sir Sidney in a cause, but only to make apparent the reason why, in spite of minor dissents and inevitable differences of estimation, our sympathy with him is enduring. It may be that we have chosen to identify ourselves so closely with Keats that we feel to Sir Sidney the attachment that is reserved for the staunch friend of a friend who is dead; but we do not believe that this is so. We are rather attached by the sense of a loyalty that exists in and for itself; more intimate repercussions may follow, but they can follow only when the critical honesty, the determination to let Keats be valid as Keats, whatever it might cost (and we can see that it sometimes costs Sir Sidney not a little), has impressed itself upon us.

It is rather by this than by Sir Sidney's particular contributions to our knowledge of the poet that we judge his book. This assured, we accept his patient exposition of the theme of 'Endymion' with a friendly interest that would certainly not be given to one with a lesser claim upon us; and in this spirit we can also find a welcome for the minute investigation of the pictorial and plastic material of Keats's imagination. Under auspices less benign we might have found the former mistaken and the latter irrelevant; but it so happens that when Sir Sidney shows us over the garden every goose is a swan. Like travellers who at the end of a long day's journey among an inhospitable peasantry are, against their expectation received in a kindly farm, and find themselves talking glibly to their host of matters which are unimportant and unknown to them—the price of land, and the points of a pedigree bull—so we follow with an intense and intelligent absorption a subtle argument in 'Endymion' in which at no moment we really believe. On the contrary, we are convinced (when we are free from our author's friendly spell) that Keats wrote 'Endymion' at all adventure. The words of the cancelled preface: 'Before I began I had no inward feel of being able to finish; and as I proceeded my steps were all uncertain,' were, we are sure, quite literally true, and if anything an under-statement of his lack of argument and plan. Not that we believe that Keats was incapable of or averse to 'fundamental brain-work'—he had an understanding more robust, firmer in its hold of reality, more closely cast upon experience, than any one of his great contemporaries, Wordsworth not excepted—but at that phase in his evolution he was simply not concerned with understanding. 'Endymion' is not a record or sublimation of experience; it is itself an experience. It was the liberation of a verbal inhibition, and the magic word of freedom was Beauty. The story of Endymion was to Keats a road to the unknown, in her course along which his imagination might 'paw up against the sky.'

A refusal to admit that Keats built 'Endymion' upon any structure of argument, however obscure—even Sir Sidney would acknowledge that the argument he discovers is very obscure—is so far from being a derogation from his genius that it is in our opinion necessary to a full appreciation of his idiosyncrasy. It is customary to regard the Odes as the pinnacle of his achievement and to trace a poetical progression to that point and a subsequent decline: we are shown the evidence of this decline in the revised Induction to 'Hyperion.' As far as an absolute poetical perfection is concerned there can be no serious objection to the view. But the case of Keats is eminently one to be considered in itself as well as objectively. There is no danger that Keats's poetry will not be appreciated; the danger is that Keats may not be understood. And precisely this moment is opportune for understanding him. As Mr T.S. Eliot has lately pointed out, the development of English poetry since the early nineteenth century was largely based on the achievement of two poets of genius, Keats and Shelley, who never reached maturity. They were made gods; and rightly, had not poets themselves bowed down to them. That was ridiculous; there is something even pitiful in the spectacle of Rossetti and Morris finding the culmination of poetry, the one in 'The Eve of St Agnes,' the other in 'La Belle Dame sans Merci.' And this undiscriminating submission of a century to the influence of hypostatised phases in the development of a poet of sanity and genius is perhaps the chief of the causes of the half-conscious, and for the most part far less discriminating, spirit of revolt which is at work in modern poetry.

A sense is abroad that the tradition has somehow been snapped, that what has been accepted as the tradition unquestioningly for a hundred years is only a cul de sac. Somewhere there has been a substitution. In the resulting chaos the twittering of bats is taken for poetry, and the critically minded have the grim amusement of watching verse-writers gain eminence by imitating Coventry Patmore! The bolder spirits declare that there never was such a thing as a tradition, that it is no use learning, because there is nothing to learn. But they are a little nervous for all their boldness, and they prefer to hunt in packs, of which the only condition of membership is that no one should ask what it is.

At such a juncture, if indeed not at all times, it is of no less importance to understand Keats than to appreciate his poetry. The culmination of the achievement of the Keats to be understood is not the Odes, perfect as they are, nor the tales—a heresy even for objective criticism—nor 'Hyperion'; but precisely that revised Induction to 'Hyperion' which on the other argument is held to indicate how the poet's powers had been ravaged by disease and the pangs of unsatisfied love. On the technical side alone the Induction is of extraordinary interest. Keats's natural and proper revulsion from the Miltonic style, the deliberate art of which he had handled like an almost master, is evident but incomplete; he is hampered by the knowledge that the virus is in his blood. The creative effort of the Induction was infinitely greater than is immediately apparent. Keats is engaged in a war on two fronts: he is struggling against the Miltonic manner, and struggling also to deal with an unfamiliar content. The whole direction of his poetic purpose had shifted since he wrote 'Hyperion.' 'Hyperion,' though far finer as art, had been produced by an impulse substantially the same as 'Endymion'; it was an exercise in a manner. Keats desired to prove to himself, and perhaps a little at that moment to prove to the world, that he was capable of Miltonic discipline and grandeur. It was, most strictly, necessary for him to be inwardly certain of this. He had drunk, as deeply as any of his contemporaries, of the tradition; he needed to know that he had assimilated what he had drunk, that he could employ a conscious art as naturally as the most deliberate artist of the past, and, most of all, that he would begin, when he did begin, at the point where his forerunners left off, and not at a point behind them. These necessities were not present in this form to Keats's mind when he began 'Hyperion'; most probably he began merely with the idea of holding his own with Milton, and with a delight in an apt and congenial theme. Keats was not a poet of definite and deliberate plans, which indeed are incident to a certain tenuity of soul; his decisions were taken not by the intellect, but by the being.

He dropped 'Hyperion' because it was inadequate to the whole of him. He was weary of its deliberate art because it interposed a veil between him and that which he needed to express; it was an imposition upon himself.

'I have given up "Hyperion"—there were too many Miltonic inversions in it—Miltonic verse cannot be written but in an artful, or rather artist's, humour. I wish to give myself up to other sensations. English ought to be kept up. It may be interesting to you to pick out some lines from "Hyperion" and a mark + to the false beauty proceeding from art and one || to the true voice of feeling….'—(Letter to J.H. Reynolds, Sept. 22, 1819.)

That outwardly negative reaction is packed with positive implications. 'English ought to be kept up' meant, on Keats's lips, a very great deal. But there is other and more definite authority for the positive direction in which he was turning. To his brother George he wrote, at the same time:—

'I have but lately stood on my guard against Milton. Life to him would be death to me. Miltonic verse cannot be written, but is the verse of art. I wish to devote myself to another verse alone.'

More definite still is the letter of November 17, 1819, to his friend and publisher, John Taylor:—

'I have come to a determination not to publish anything I have now ready written; but for all that to publish a poem before long and that I hope to make a fine one. As the marvellous is the most enticing and the surest guarantee of harmonious numbers I have been endeavouring to persuade myself to untether fancy and to let her manage for herself. I and myself cannot agree about this at all. Wonders are no wonders to me. I am more at home amongst Men and Women. I would rather read Chaucer than Ariosto. The little dramatic skill I may as yet have, however badly it might show in a Drama, would, I think, be sufficient for a Poem. I wish to diffuse the colouring of St Agnes Eve throughout a poem in which Character and Sentiment would be the figures to such drapery. Two or three such poems if God should spare me, written in the course of the next six years would be a famous gradus ad Parnassum altissimum. I mean they would nerve me up to the writing of a few fine plays—my greatest ambition—when I do feel ambitious….'

No letter could be saner, nor more indicative of calm resolve. Yet the precise determination is that nothing that went to make the 1820 volume should be published, neither Odes, nor Tales, nor 'Hyperion.' This is that mood of Keats which Sir Sidney Colvin, in his comment upon a passage in the revised Induction, calls one of 'fierce injustice to his own achievements and their value.' But a poet, if he is a real one, judges his own achievements not by those of his contemporaries, but by the standard of his own intention.

The evidence that Keats's mind had passed beyond the stage at which it could be satisfied by the poems of the 1820 volume is overwhelming. His letters to George of April, 1819, show that he was naturally evolving towards an attitude, a philosophy, more profound and comprehensive than could be expressed adequately in such records of momentary aspiration and emotion as the Odes; though the keen and sudden poignancy that had invaded them belongs to the new Keats. They mark the transition to the new poetry which he vaguely discerned. The problem was to find the method. The letters we have quoted to show his reaction from the Miltonic influence display the more narrowly 'artistic' aspect of the same evolution. A technique more responsive to the felt reality of experience must be found—'English ought to be kept up'—the apparatus of Romantic story must be abandoned—'Wonders are no wonders to me'—yet the Romantic colour must be kept to restore to a realistic psychology the vividness and richly various quality that are too often lost by analysis We do not believe that we have in any respect forced the interpretation of the letters; the terminology of that age needs to be translated to be understood 'Men and Women … Characters and Sentiments' are called, for better or worse, 'psychology' nowadays. And our translation has this merit, that some of our ultra-moderns will listen to the word 'psychology,' where they would be bat-blind to 'Characters' and stone-deaf to 'Sentiments.'

Modern poetry is still faced with the same problem; but very few of its adepts have reached so far as to be able to formulate it even with the precision of Keats's scattered allusions. Keats himself was struck down at the moment when he was striving (against disease and against a devouring, hopeless love-passion) to face it squarely. The revised Induction reveals him in the effort to shape the traditional (and perhaps still necessary) apparatus of myth to an instrument of his attitude. The meaning of the Induction is not difficult to discover; but current criticism has the habit of regarding it dubiously. Therefore we may be forgiven for attempting, with the brevity imposed upon us, to make its elements clear. The first eighteen lines, which Sir Sidney Colvin on objective grounds regrets are, we think, vital.

  'Fanatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave
  A paradise for a sect; the savage, too,
  From forth the loftiest fashion of his sleep
  Guesses at heaven; pity these have not
  Trac'd upon vellum or wild Indian leaf
  The shadows of melodious utterance,
  But bare of laurel they live, dream, and die;
  For poesy alone can tell her dreams,—
  With the fine spell of words alone can save
  Imagination from the sable chain
  And dumb enchantment. Who alive can say,
  'Thou art no poet—mays't not tell thy dreams'?
  Since every man whose soul is not a clod
  Hath visions and would speak, if he had loved,
  And been well-nurtured in his mother-tongue.
  Whether the dream now purposed to rehearse
  Be poet's or fanatic's will be known
  When this warm scribe, my hand, is in the grave.'

We may admit that the form of these lines is unfortunate; but we cannot wish them away. They bear most closely upon the innermost argument of the poem as Keats endeavoured to reshape it. All men, says Keats, have their visions of reality; but the poet alone can express his, and the poet himself may at the last prove to have been a fanatic, one who has imagined 'a paradise for a sect' instead of a heaven for all humanity.

This discovery marks the point of crisis in Keats's development. He is no longer content to be the singer; his poetry must be adequate to all experience. No wonder then that the whole of the new Induction centres about this thought. He describes his effort to fight against an invading death and to reach the altar in the mighty dream palace. As his foot touches the altar-step life returns, and the prophetic voice of the veiled goddess reveals to him that he has been saved by his power 'to die and live again before Thy fated hour.'

  '"None can usurp this height," return'd that shade.
  "But those to whom the miseries of the world
  Are misery and will not let them rest.
  All else who find a haven in the world
  Where they may thoughtless sleep away their days,
  If by a chance into this fane they come,
  Rot on the pavement where thou rottedst half."'

Because he has been mindful of the pain in the world, the poet has been saved. But the true lovers of humanity,—

  'Who love their fellows even to the death,
  Who feel the giant agony of the world,'

are greater than the poets; 'they are no dreamers weak.'

  'They come not here, they have no thought to come,
  And thou art here for thou are less than they.'

It is a higher thing to mitigate the pain of the world than to brood upon the problem of it. And not only the lover of mankind, but man the animal is pre-eminent above the poet-dreamer. His joy is joy; his pain, pain. 'Only the dreamer venoms all his days.' Yet the poet has his reward; it is given to him to partake of the vision of the veiled Goddess—memory, Moneta, Mnemosyne, the spirit of the eternal reality made visible.

  'Then saw I a wan face
  Not pined by human sorrows, but bright-blanch'd
  By an immortal sickness which kills not;
  It works a constant change, which happy death
  Can put no end to; deathwards progressing
  To no death was that visage; it had past
  The lily and the snow; and beyond these
  I must not think now, though I saw that face.
  But for her eyes I should have fled away;
  They held me back with a benignant light
  Soft, mitigated by divinest lids
  Half-closed, and visionless entire they seemed
  Of all external things; they saw me not,
  But in blank splendour beam'd like the mild moon
  Who comforts those she sees not, who knows not
  What eyes are upward cast….'

This vision of Moneta is the culminating point of Keats's evolution. It stands at the summit, not of his poetry, but of his achievement regarded as obedient to its own inward law. Moneta was to him the discovered spirit of reality; her vision was the vision of necessity itself. In her, joy and pain, life and death compassion and indifference, vision and blindness are one; she is the eternal abode of contraries, the Idea if you will, not hypostatised but immanent. Before this reality the poet is impotent as his fellows; he is above them by his knowledge of it, but below them by the weakness which that knowledge brings. He, too, is the prey of contraries, the mirror of his deity, struck to the heart of his victory, enduring the intolerable pain of triumph.

Here, not unfittingly, in his struggle with a conception too big to express, came the end of Keats the poet. None have passed beyond him; few have been so far. Of the poetry that might have been constructed on the basis of an apprehension so profound we can form only a conjecture, each after his own image: we do not know the method of the 'other verse' of which Keats had a glimpse; we only know the quality with which it would have been saturated, the calm and various light of united contraries.

We fear that Sir Sidney Colvin will not agree with our view. The angles of observation are different. The angle at which we have placed ourselves is not wholly advantageous—from it Sir Sidney's book could not have been written—but it has this advantage, that from it we can read his book with a heightened interest. As we look out from it, some things are increased and some diminished with the change of perspective; and among those which are increased is our gratitude to Sir Sidney. In the clear mirror of his sympathy and sanity nothing is obscured. We are shown the Keats who wrote the perfect poems that will last with the English language, and in the few places where Sir Sidney falls short of the spirit of complete acceptance, we discern behind the words of rebuke and regret only the idealisation of a love which we are proud to share.