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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Silent Isle - Chapter 49
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The Silent Isle - Chapter 49 Post by :Yeraj Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :1494

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 49

CHAPTER XLIX

I have been reading all to-day the Letters of Keats, a thing which I do at irregular intervals. Perhaps what I am going to say may sound affected, but it is perfectly true: it is a book that always has a very peculiar effect on me, not so much a mental effect as what, for want of a better word, I will call a spiritual effect. It sets my soul on flame. I feel as though I had drawn near to a spirit burning like a fiery lamp, and that my own torpid and inert spirit had been kindled at it. That flame will burn out again, as it has burnt out many times before; but while the fire still leaps and glances in my heart I will try to put down exactly what it makes me feel I believe there are few books that give one, in the first place, more of the author's own heart. Is there in the world any book which gives so fully the youthful, ebullient thoughts of a man of the highest poetical genius as this? I cannot recall any. Keats, to his brothers, his sister, and to one or two intimate friends, allowed his long, vague letters to be an absolutely intimate diary of what he was thinking. You see his genius rise and flush and blaze and grow cold again before your eyes. Not to multiply instances, take the wonderful letter written in October 1818 to Richard Woodhouse, where he sketches his own poetical temperament, differentiating it from what he calls the "Wordsworthian Character--the egotistically sublime." He goes on to say that he feels that he has no identity of his own, but that he is a kind of sensitive mirror on which external things imprint themselves for a lucid moment and are gone again; he says that it is a torture to him to be in a room with other people, because the identity of everyone presses on him so insistently. He adds in a fine elation that "the faint conceptions that he has of poems to come, bring the blood frequently into his forehead."

Such a letter as this admits one to the very penetralia of the supremely artistic mind--but the wonder of Keats' confession is that he saw himself as clearly and distinctly as he saw everyone else. And further, I do not think that there is anything in literature that gives one a sharper feeling of the reality of genius than to find the immortal poems, such as _La Belle Dame sans Merci_, copied down in the middle of a letter, as an unconsidered trifle which may amuse his correspondent.

Now, in saying this, I do not for a moment say that Keats was an entirely admirable or even a wholly lovable character--though his tenderness, his consideration, his affectionateness constantly emerge. He had strongly marked faults: his taste is often questionable; his humour is frequently deplorable. He makes and repeats jokes which cause one to writhe and blush--he was, and I say it boldly, occasionally vulgar; but it is not an innate vulgarity, only the superficial vulgarity which comes of living among second-rate suburban literary people. One cannot help feeling every now and then that some of Keats' friends were really impossible--but I am glad that _he did not feel them to be so, that he was loyal and generous about them. There have been great critics, of whom Matthew Arnold was one, who have said frankly that the aroma of Keats' letters is intolerable. That does not seem to me a large judgment, but it is quite an intelligible one. If one has been brought up in a certain instinctive kind of refinement, there are certain modes of life, certain ways of looking at things, which grate hopelessly upon one's idea of what is refined; and perhaps life is not long enough to try and overcome it, to try and argue oneself out of it. I think it is quite possible that if one had only known Keats slightly, one might have thought him a very underbred young man, as when he showed himself suspicious and ill at ease in the company of Shelley, because of his social standing. "A loose, slack, ill-dressed youth," was Coleridge's impression of Keats, when he met him in a lane near Highgate. But I honestly believe that this would have been only an external and superficial feeling. Again, Keats as a lover is undeniably disconcerting. His zealousness, his uncontrolled luxuriance of passion, though partly attributable to his fevered and despondent condition of health, are lacking in dignity. But as a friend, Keats seems to me almost above praise; and I can imagine that if one had been of his circle, and had won his regard, it would have been difficult not to have idealised him. He seems to me to have displayed that frank, affectionate brotherliness, untainted by sentimentality, which is the essence of equal friendship; and then, too, he gave his heart and his thoughts and his dreams to his friends so prodigally and lavishly--not egotistically, as some have given--with no self-absorption, no lack of sympathy, but in the spirit of the old fisherman in Theocritus, who says to his comrade, "Come, be a sharer of my dreams as of my fishing," and then tells his pretty vision. With no lack of sympathy, I say, because the lavish generosity with which Keats bestowed his money upon his friends, when he had but a small store left and when financial difficulties were staring him in the face, is one of the finest things about him. There is a correspondence with that strange, selfish spendthrift Haydon, which shows the endless trouble Keats would take to raise money for a friend when he was in worse straits himself. Haydon treated him with insolent frankness, and hinted that Keats was parsimonious and ungenerous; even so, Keats never lost his temper, but described with perfect simplicity the extraordinary difficulties he was himself involved in, with as much patience and good-humour as though he had been himself the borrower; and the delicious letters that he wrote, all through his own anxieties, to his little sister Fanny, then a girl at a boarding-school, reveal, like nothing else, the faithful and-tender spirit of the boy--for he was hardly more than a boy. Of course there are letters, like those of Lamb and FitzGerald, which bring one very close to the spirit of the writer; but with this difference, that they rarely seem to lay bare their inmost thought; but Keats had no reserve with his best friends. He put into words the very things that we most of us are ashamed, from a fear of being accused of pose and affectation, to reveal--his loftiest hopes and aspirations, the wide remote prospects seen from the hills of life, the deep ambitions, the exaltations of spirit, the raptures of art. I do not mean that one can share these in their fulness; but Keats seems to have experienced daily and hourly, in his best days, those august shocks of experience and insight of which any man who loves and worships art, however fitfully, can register a few. There is a little picture of Keats, done, I think, after his death by Severn, which represents him sitting in the tiny parlour of Wentworth Place, with the window open to the orchard, where, under the plum-tree, he wrote the _Ode to the Nightingale_. He sits on one chair, with his arm on the back of another, his hand upon his hair, reading a volume of Shakespeare with a smile of satisfaction. He is neatly dressed, and has pumps with bows on his feet. That picture, like the letters, seems to bring Keats curiously near to life; I always fancy-that Severn must have had in his mind a charming passage in one of Keats' letters to his sister Fanny, where he says he would like to have a house with a big bow-window with some stained glass in it, looking out on the Lake of Geneva, with a bowl of gold-fish by his side, where he would sit and read all day, like a portrait of a gentleman reading. The picture is somehow so characteristic that one feels for a moment in his presence.

Well, what do I deduce from all this? Partly that Keats was a man of incomparable genius; partly that he was a man whom one could have loved for himself; partly, too, that one ought not to be ashamed of one's far-reaching thoughts, if one is fortunate enough to have them, and that one receives and gives more good by telling them frankly and unsuspiciously than if one keeps them to oneself for fear of being thought a fool.

Of course the whole career of Keats opens a door to a host of uneasy speculations. If the purpose of our Creator is to educate the world on certain lines, if he desires by the memory and the utterance of men of high genius to kindle the human spirit to fine and generous dreams and to the appreciation of beauty, it is terribly hard to discern why he should have created a spirit so fiery-sweet as that of Keats, and then cut short his career by a series of hard strokes of misfortune and disease just when he was finding fullest utterance. One looks round upon the world, and one sees temperaments of all kinds--religious, artistic, philosophical temperaments on the one hand; commercial; commonplace, animal, selfish temperaments on the other. The percentage of the higher spirits is few and does not seem to increase; yet the human race owes much of its advance in purity, nobility, and kindliness to them. We cannot be wholly mistaken in thinking that it is these rare spirits which sustain, enliven, and enrich the world. And yet they seem to be regarded with no special favour by the Creator; they have to contend with insuperable obstacles; the very sensitiveness of their spirit is a torturing disability. The selfish, worldly, hard, brutal temperaments have almost invariably a far better time of it in the world; yet both the exalted spirit and the brutal spirit are undeniable facts; the lofty, unselfish, pure spirit is as real and existent as the vile and sensual spirit. Are we all under a lamentable mistake in the matter? Is the heart of God more on the side of what is noble and pure and enthusiastic than it is on the side of what is base and vile; or is it only the enthusiasts who think so? If an enlightened nation is engaged in a war with a brutal nation, do not the patriots on both sides pray with equal fervour and hope to God to protect what they call the right? Do not both sides hope and believe that he will support them and confound their opponents?

These are dark mysteries of thought; but if we argue in the cold light of reason we dare not, it seems, think that God has any favourites in the battle. He silences the poet, he smites the preacher down; while he sustains in wealth and comfort and honour the man of low and selfish ambitions. The Psalmist said that he saw the wicked flourishing like a green bay-tree, and he was pleased to observe a little after that he was gone and that his place was no more to be found. If he had looked a little closer he might have seen the virtuous man oppressed, and presently removed as indifferently as the wicked. One cannot feel the justice or the mercy in the case of Keats. He was made to give utterance to a certain pure and delicate music of the mind, which has refreshed and inspired many a yearning spirit; but he was swept away ruthlessly at the very height of his genius, and it is still more bewildering to reflect that his life was probably sacrificed to his devoted tendance on his consumptive brother.

Perhaps these are but fruitless reveries! but it is hard to resist them. The only course is to hold fast to one's faith in what is pure and beautiful, and to give thanks that such spirits as the spirit of Keats are allowed to pass in flame across the dark heaven, calling from horizon to horizon among the interstellar spaces; and to be sure that the glow, the ardour, the aspirations that they impart to the soul are real and true--an essential part of the mind of God, however small a part they may be of that Eternal and all-embracing Will.

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