The Weekly Machen
As is made clear in the following article, Arthur Machen was a great admirer of English poet John Keats (1795-1821). Under-appreciated in his lifetime, Keats was abused cruelly by reviewers, including the infamous Blackwood’s Magazine piece which is discussed below. More than once in his essays, Machen quoted Keats’s poetic phrase “faery lands forlorn” from Ode to a Nightingale, as a weapon to defend mystery against materialism. Machen is not alone in his deep appreciation for Keats’s posthumously published “Letters.” Another great poet of the English language, T. S. Eliot expressed high praise: “certainly the most notable and most important ever written by any English poet.”
The following article is not listed in the bibliography by Goldstone & Sweester.
Some Notes on the New Letters in “The Times”
April 16, 1914
If we would define beauty as expressed in language, we can do so no better than by pointing to immortal lines from which the soul of Adonais beckons to us all.—“The Times.”
“Are you fond of Keats?” said the enthusiastic young lady to her partner at the dance.
The young gentleman gave a glance of nervous perplexity and asked, in stammering tones:
‘‘I beg your pardon, but—er—er—what are Keats?”
He thought that they must be something to eat—I like to imagine that some very small fish used as a hors d’œuvre were in his mind—and I wonder how many people here speculated during the last few days as to the real nature and office of Keats. A man in the morning train from the suburb described him as “the essayist”; he came nearer to the true facts than the young gentleman in the ball-room, but he was still somewhat astray.
The true answer is that John Keats is one of the greatest poets in the whole of English literature; that is, one of the greatest poets in the literature of the world. Hence the interest, excited by the printing in to-day’s issue of The Times“ Literary Supplement” of certain verses by Keats and certain letters concerning Keats which have never been printed before, though the last line of the last letter was written ninety-four years ago.
“The Strain of Underbreeding”
Let it be said that the glory of the poet will be in no way magnified by the newly-discovered poetry. There is a certain grave remote melody in the stanzas beginning “You say you love”; an echo rather, of a sweet song heard from far off.
You say you love; but with a smile
Cold as sunrise in September
As you were Saint Cupid’s nun,
And kept his weeks of ember.
O love me truly!
But into the music break ugly discords; “squeeze as lovers should” is Keats at his worst. Keats ‘‘marred . . . by a taint of that special strain of underbreeding,” in Sir Sidney Colvin’s phrase. It was the use of such phrases as this that made the poet the easier mark for the wicked and stupid malignities of Blackwood’s Magazine and the Quarterly Review.
And certain other verses, exhibiting Keats as experimenting in the rollicking, careless, cynical mood of “Don Juan,” are even less 1ikely to add new leaves to his laureate wreath.
The Letters are of greater interest. One of them is from a friend, one Richard Woodhouse, who, otherwise unknown deserves to be famous forever, both as a critic and a friend.
In all places—writes Woodhouse—and at all times, and before all persons, 1 would express, and as far as I am able, support, my high opinion of his poetical merits—such a genius, I verily believe has not appeared since Shakespeare and Milton. . . . And now, while Keats is unknown, unheeded, despised of one of our arch-critics, neglected by the rest—in the teeth of the world, and in the face of “these curious days,” I express my conviction that Keats . . . will rank on a level with the best of the last or of the present generation: and after his death will take his place at their head.
A Wonderful Prophecy
This is the prophecy of a splendid faith and of a sure intuition for the presence of beauty; and it has been fulfilled to the uttermost. Where the eminent and the pontifical and the highly exalted perhaps who sat on the critical thrones of England in those days were all hopelessly, frantically wrong; this obscure Richard Woodhouse was right.
Nay, such a man as Carlyle, writing fifteen or sixteen years later, could find nothing in Keats but a “maudlin weak-eyed sensibility”; so dim on occasion are the keenest eyes.
There is another letter which has a strong interest. It is written by Keats’s publisher Taylor, and relates a conversation between Taylor and Blackwood on the subject of the infamous review in Blackwood’s Magazine. Blackwood was feeble in faint apology— “oh, it was all a joke, the writer meant nothing more than to be witty. . . . the writer does not like the Cockney School, so he went on joking Mr. K. about it.” And Mr. Taylor asked pertinently enough, why gentlemen should not be gentlemen still, even though they have pens in their hands.
And finally there are the lettes written by Severn, the painter, the friend who accompanied the dying Keats to Italy on the last journey, who nursed him through despair and sickness, and held him in his arms as the poet, immortal, departed out of this mortal life. Severn’s letters speak of sickness of body and of mind, of the squalid misadventures of the voyage, of the despair of a hopeless love that pressed heavily, intolerably on Keats’s heart; and yet again they speak of the courage and the gaiety of the derided, despised poet; how now and again he brightened and made light of pains and discomforts.
Such are the episodes in the life of John Keats which “The Literary Supplement” of The Times recalls to us to-day; it is as though the voices of these men who have all been dead so many years ago spoke to us, and as with a most potent evocation summoned back from the shadows the England of nigh a hundred years ago.
Previous: A Leap into Midsummer
Next: The Real King Edward
5 thoughts on “John Keats”
I’m not sure what the situation was as regards the published letters of Keats when Machen wrote this piece. Someone today interested in reading them might pick up the 1970s Oxford paperback Letters of John Keats: A Selection Edited by Robert Gittings. A two-volume “complete” (as far as I know offhand) Letters was published by Harvard, edited by Rollins, in 1958. Do we see Keats quoted in new essays these days?
My impression is that English-speaking people who read poetry at all these days tend to read little but new poetry or new translations (e.g. several new translations of the Divine Comedy have appeared in the past few decades). I could be mistaken.
For what his opinion is worth (personally I find him very readable but imprinted by the Zeitgeist), Richard Holmes said that “characteristic monuments,” “abiding reference points,” of English Romanticism were Wordsworth’s Prelude, Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Hazlitt’s Spirit of the Age, De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and Keats’s letters.
To be honest, I have personally read very little of Keats. I have no reason or excuse, expect that there are too many books and too many authors for me to read! However, I recently received a couple of old anthologies of English poetry, so I should open to the sections on Keats and experience his writing. His letters sound interesting.
With Dodds, I wonder about the Inkling connection. On first thought, I wonder if Keats’s romanticism would be an issue. How did they feel about Byron or Shelley?
Though Shelley was an atheist, Lewis wrote an essay in his defense (“Shelley, Dryden, and Mr. Eliot”). Wordsworth and Coleridge are the Romantics of most importance for the Inklings, I have little doubt. Without checking, I can only say that I think Lewis liked Keats’s poetry quite a lot. If you decide to give him a try, along with the famous handful of Odes (especially Nightingale, Grecian Urn, Autumn) be sure to read “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” one of the great eldritch poems, and the Chapman’s Homer sonnet.
These must have been new discoveries, at least to some extent – perhaps entirely. For, that poem is not in the 1910 Oxford Edition of the Poetical Works, in which H. Buxton Forman writes in his Prefactory Note (p. [iii]), “The whole of Keats’s known works in verse are included”. The Internet Archive also has scans of a fascinating-looking collection, The John Keats Memorial Volume, issued by the Keats House Committee, Hampstead, dated February 13, 1921. Was there anything comparable, last year? Keats’s English Wikipedia article does at least list various 21st-century (re-)publications, dramatizations, and a poem by “Poet Laureate Simon Armitage […] “‘I speak as someone…'” to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Keats’s death […] first published in The Times on 20 February 2021.” Do Inklings get new generations of people reading Keats? I had already had an excellent English Romantics course with Dr. Arthur N. Kincaid, before encountering any Inklings’ appreciations,as far as I recall… However, I certainly enjoyed Charles Williams’s discussions in The English Poetic Mind (1932) and Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind (1933) – though I did not know his friend and colleague, Frederick Page, edited a selection of Keats’s letters for the Oxford Classics series in 1954, until browsing around the Internet Archive just now.