Older Masters: Essays and Reflections on English and American Literature

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

22
John Keats: a Genius and his Limitations

Fifty years ago, when it was widely held that the sort of poetry inaugurated and exemplified by T. S. Eliot was 'anti-Romantic', the poets of the Romantic Movement came in for much harsh and derisive criticism. But from these strictures Keats was always exempted. It was F.R. Leavis, one of the influential voices of that time, who asked us to admire 'To bend with apples the moss'd cottage trees', finding there 'a strength — a native English strength — lying beyond the scope of the poet who aimed to make English as like Italian as possible'. No one seems to have asked whether the phrase 'native English strength', so plainly offered as commendation, did not suggest an insular chauvinism; nor whether making English as like Italian as possible (Leavis imputed this endeavour to Tennyson) was self-evidently a dishonourable intention.

Much water has since flowed under bridges: Tennyson has rightly been rehabilitated; Eliot himself has been found to be in many ways a Tennysonian poet; and Leavis's subsequent writings have shown that 'insular chauvinism' was indeed a true bill. Yet Keats's reputation continues to enjoy a singular immunity. John Bayley, whose 1962 British Academy lecture flew the flag for a post-Leavisite Keats, was to remark in his Pushkin:A comparative commentary how the great Russian poet lacked 'the ability of the English Romantic poets to be clumsy with point and power'; and would cite, as an instance of such inspired clumsiness Keats's phrase, 'the feel of not to feel it'. A mostly adulatory reviewer remarked mildly that 'to commiserate with a poet for lacking the ability to be clumsy (however powerfully) seems to be a reach of refinement that would have raised a laugh from either Pushkin or Keats'. But Bayley was impenitent, applauding how Keats in the Odes 'perfected' his clumsiness. Moreover, the grounds for Keats's immunity seemed still to be insular, since his clumsiness was associated with 'that wryly complacent English pleasure', which Bayley discerned and endorsed, 'in things going wrong or never having been right', something which, he observed with obvious satisfaction, 'has become so much a part of English

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