Shelley and the 1817 Volume
IN 1819 Keats wrote in one of his journal letters to George and Georgiana in America:
A Man's life of any worth is a continual allegory--and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life--a life like the scriptures, figurative. . . . Lord Byron cuts a figure--but he is not figurative--Shakspeare led a life of Allegory: his works are the comments on it--
The exact meaning of this passage is hard to comprehend, but its application to Keats's own life is not difficult. Endowed as we are with the rich collection of his letters in addition to his poems, we can see the pattern, the shape of his life more clearly than in the case of most writers. The shape suggests an emblem, an allegory, and the beginning and the end of his poetic life is arched over by a misty rainbow; by a rare and beautiful emanation, by that other young poet, Shelley.
Keats probably first met Shelley at Hunt's house in December, 1816. The two poets had already been associated by Hunt on paper in that first public recognition of them in The Examiner of December 1st. Shelley took a strong liking for Keats but Keats did not return it in anything like the same degree.
Sensitive as he was to outside influences and to personalities, the positive force of Shelley's ardent mind must have impinged strongly on his. Genius is not perhaps often profoundly influenced by contemporary genius: the mutual stimulation of the young Coleridge and Wordsworth is possibly a notable exception. The creative mind has to work out its own salvation: another creative mind as strong and of a different texture can more easily interfere with the natural course than guide it. Great men often learn more readily from lesser, from men of pure intellect rather than from the formative spirit of another genius. The creative spirit, fluid as it is, needs harder, more concrete minds to rub against, from which to acquire strength. The minds of Keats and Shelley were poles apart: Keats, when he came to control his imagination, felt he had changed, contrary to the process of nature, from a butterfly into a chrysalis 'having two little loopholes, whence I may look out into the stage of the world. . . .' He had moulted, 'not for fresh feathers and wings: they are gone, and in their stead I hope to have a pair of patient sublunary legs.' He wrote later to Shelley,