A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter Twenty-nine
KEATS

O latest born and loveliest vision far
Of all Olympus' faded hierarchy!

SO Keats hails Psyche, and so one feels inclined to hail Keats himself. He was the last of the great Romantics to be born (in 1795, the same year as Thomas Carlyle) and the first to die. His early death was the greatest loss that English poetry ever sustained. When he died, at twenty-five, he had written Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, The Eve of St. Mark, and Hyperion, besides four of the finest sonnets, five of the greatest odes, and one of the finest ballads in the English language. A marvellous performance! and more marvellous still when we look closer into the facts. Keats was not exceptionally precocious. He published nothing till he was nearly twenty-two; and for the last thirteen months of his life he was a dying man, sunk too deep in sickness and despair to write any poetry except one great sonnet, composed on the small, comfortless ship that carried him and Severn to Italy: "Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art." Except that sonnet, and one early sonnet on Chapman's Homer, all the masterpieces mentioned above were written in twenty months, between February 1818 and October 1819. Well might Tennyson say, " Keats with his high spiritual vision would have been, if he had lived, the greatest of us all." It is of course possible that the disease which carried him off, and the passion of love which simultaneously consumed him, may have quickened this astonishing efflorescence, and that his genius might have faded as speedily as it flowered. But of the direction in which his work might have developed more will be said later.

In contradistinction to Shelley's early rather feverish taste for the terror novel of the day, the hidden mysteries of chemistry, and Utopian political theories, is John Keats's early and eager delight in poetry for the sake of poetry. No poet has left on record in

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