Schooldays and Apprenticeship (1803-1815)
MATTHEW ARNOLD, referring to Keats's own statement, 'I think I shall be among the English poets after my death,' added, 'he is--he is with Shakespeare.'
In the preparation for his high destiny Keats was with Shakespeare. They both had the limited education of a middle-class boy and, to complete it, ranged freely among the English writers and moved among men. They sounded the depths of the heart's suffering and rose to the heights of creative imagination; both with a quick capacious intellect, a love of life and of their fellow-beings and the humour which enables a man to see in true perspective. Julius Cæsar, with its anachronisms, is more Roman in feeling than the scholarly plays of Ben Jonson: Keats (though it is true that later he felt the gaps in his knowledge, setting himself to fill them up with an intensity beyond a failing strength) had no Greek to balance the 'little Latin' of Shakespeare, but came nearer to the Greek spirit than any other English writer. The intuitive spirit of genius carries a man far. Perhaps he had better not be bound too tightly in chains in his boyhood.
Mrs. Keats is credited with a desire to send her sons to Harrow, a Harrow still in the grip of the classics, where the boys spent their days in construing. The greatest gain to Keats might have been a fine library, but he managed to obtain, mainly by borrowing, enough books to quicken his imagination into life and to produce within four short years poetry that will live through the ages.
In reality Keats was singularly fortunate in his school. At a tender age he came under the influence of John Clarke, 'a man of nobly liberal opinions, of refined taste in literature . . . as gentle-hearted as he was wise, and as wise as he was gentle-hearted.' Clarke must, too, have been a man of considerable courage: while Leigh Hunt was under sentence for his attack in The Examiner on the Prince Regent, he sent his son to the prison in Horsemonger Lane every week with baskets of vegetables and eggs. Although the Prince was unpopular and Liberal opinion was with the Hunt brothers, headmasters cannot usually afford to go against the established order of things. There must have been among the tradesmen fathers of his pupils many staunch 'Bible- crown-and-Constitution' men who would look askance at an acknowledgment of sympathy with a notorious Radical and rebel.