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Jan/Feb 2016 Reviews & Interviews

Endymion: A Poetic Romance

Endymion: A Poetic Romance
John Keats. London. 1818. pp 207.

Historic Review presented by Gilbert Wesley Purdy


Buy now from Amazon! As John Keats and his friends waited to learn what the British reviews would say about of his first volume of poems, Endymion: A Poetic Romance, the poet was tending his much beloved, tubercular brother, Tom, and noting possible symptoms in himself. He surely knew that his brother had little time left. The coterie could not have imagined how scathing the attacks upon the poet and the poem would be. John Gibson Lockhart's anonymous review in Blackwoods was personal and vicious. A romantic myth immediately sprang up—and continues to this day—that the review had driven Keats into his early grave. The following (also anonymous) review (this by John Wilson Crocker), in the Quarterly Review, the release of which had been delayed many months until September of 1818, was their last hope. The three advantages it proved to have were: (1) that it actually reviewed the poem rather than the poet: (2) it at least admitted that the poet had talent, however much misapplied; and (3) Keats, in his rapid poetical maturation, had already come to agree with much of the censure and to change direction.

Lockhart was the son-in-law of Sir Walter Scott, far and away the most popular poet of the time. Both men despised the infamous poet-critic Leigh Hunt, Keats' mentor, and their influence was so great that all of the reviews were actually of Hunt's hated ideas and only incidentally of any poet or book that was associated with them. Lockhart assigned the poets around Hunt with the most demeaning name possible, something which proved to be a particular talent of his. Thus Keats is labeled a member of "the Cockney School of Poetry." With such a label, and the disdain of the great Sir Walter Scott, the poet could not possibly receive a positive review. Keats' Endymion stood in as a mere proxy for Leigh Hunt. The fact that it was immature, for all of its obvious talents, simply provided an easier target for selective quotation and excoriation. The book could not possibly receive a balanced assessment in any mainstream periodical.

Keats' acceptance of the judgement in Crocker's review, while the sign of a genuine quantum leap in maturity, was an overreaction. Gibson's first criteria, after all, is that a poet's couplets should each form a single unit of thought. The style was thankfully already in its dotage, even in 1818. Had the review been written ten years later it would have been considered ridiculous, in that respect, rather than the book of poems. As it was, Keats was already deeply involved in writing poems we now consider to be among the greatest, most stunningly sensuous in the English language.

***

Reviewers have been sometimes accused of not reading the works which they affected to criticize. On the present occasion we shall anticipate the author's complaint, and honestly confess that we have not read his work. Not that we have been wanting in our duty—far from it—indeed, we have made efforts almost as superhuman as the story itself appears to be, to get through it; but with the fullest stretch of our perseverance, we are forced to confess that we have not been able to struggle beyond the first of the four books of which this Poetic Romance consists. We should extremely lament this want of energy, or whatever it may be, on our parts, were it not for one consolation—namely, that we are no better acquainted with the meaning of the book through which we have so painfully toiled, than we are with that of the three which we have not looked into.

It is not that Mr. Keats, (if that be his real name, for we almost doubt that any man in his senses would put his real name to such a rhapsody,) it is not, we say, that the author has not powers of language, rays of fancy, and gleams of genius—he has all these; but he is unhappily a disciple of the new school of what has been somewhere called Cockney poetry; which may be defined to consist of the most incongruous ideas in the most uncouth language.

Of this school, Mr. Leigh Hunt, as we observed in a former Number, aspires to be the hierophant. Our readers will recollect the pleasant recipes for harmonious and sublime poetry which he gave us in his preface to "Rimini," and the still more facetious instances of his harmony and sublimity in the verses themselves; and they will recollect above all the contempt of Pope, Johnson, and such like poetasters and pseudo-critics, which so forcibly contrasted itself with Mr. Leigh Hunt's self-complacent approbation of

—all the things itself had wrote,
Of special merit though of little note.

This author is a copyist of Mr. Hunt, but he is more unintelligible, almost as rugged, twice as diffuse, and ten times more tiresome and absurd than his prototype, who, though he impudently presumed to seat himself in the chair of criticism, and to measure his own poetry by his own standard, yet generally had a meaning. But Mr. Keats has advanced no dogmas which he was bound to support by examples; his nonsense therefore is quite gratuitous; he writes it for its own sake, and, being bitten by Mr. Leigh Hunt's insane criticism, more than rivals the insanity of his poetry.

Mr. Keats's preface hints that his poem was produced under peculiar circumstances.

Knowing within myself (he says) the manner in which this Poem has been produced, it is not without a feeling of regret that I make it public.—What manner I mean, will be quite clear to the reader, who must soon perceive great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished. [Preface p vii]

We humbly beg his pardon but this does not appear to us to be quite so clear—we really do not know what he means—but the next passage is more intelligible.

The two first books, and indeed the two, last I feel sensible are not of such completion as to warrant their passing the press. [Preface p vii]

Thus "the two first books" are even in his own judgment, unfit to appear, and "the two last" are, it seems, in the same condition—and as two and two make four, and as that is the whole number of books, we have a clear and, we believe, a very just estimate of the entire work. Mr. Keats however deprecates criticism on this "immature and feverish work" in terms which are themselves sufficiently feverish; and we confess that we should have abstained from inflicting upon him any of the tortures of the "fierce hell" of criticism, which terrify his imagination, if he had not begged to be spared in order that he might write more; if we had not observed in him a certain degree of talent which deserves to be put in the right way, or which, at least, ought to be warned of the wrong; and if, finally, he had not told us that he is of an age and temper which imperiously require mental discipline.

Of the story we have been able to make out but little; it seems to be mythological, and probably relates to the loves of Diana and Endymion; but of this, as the scope of the work has altogether escaped us, we cannot speak with any degree of certainty; and must therefore content ourselves with giving some instances of its diction and versification:—and here again we are perplexed and puzzled.—At first it appeared to us, that Mr. Keats had been amusing himself and wearying his readers with an immeasurable game at bouts-rimes; but if we recollect rightly, it is an indispensable condition at this play, that the rhymes when filled up shall have a meaning; and our author, as we have already hinted, has no meaning. He seems to us to write a line at random, and then he follows not the thought excited by this line, but that suggested by the rhyme with which it concludes. There is hardly a complete couplet enclosing a complete idea in the whole book. He wanders from one subject to another, from the association, not of the ideas but of sounds, and the work is composed of hemistichs which, it is quite evident, have forced themselves upon the author by the mere force of the catchwords on which they turn.

We shall select, not as the most striking instance, but as that least liable to suspicion, a passage from the opening of the poem.

—Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
"Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead; &c. &c. [pp 3-4]

Here it is clear that the word, and not the idea, moon produces the simple sheep and their shady boon, and that "the dooms of the mighty dead" would never have intruded themselves but for the "fair musk rose blooms."

Again.

For "twas the morn: Apollo's upward fire
Made every eastern cloud a silvery pyre
Of brightness so unsullied, that therein
A melancholy spirit well might win
Oblivion, and melt out his essence fine
Into the winds: rain-scented eglantine
Gave temperate sweets to that well-wooing sun;
The lark was lost in him; cold springs had run
To warm their chilliest bubbles in the grass;
Man's voice was on the mountains; and the mass
Of nature's lives and wonders puls"d tenfold"
To feel this sun-rise and its glories old. [p 8]

Here Apollo's fire produces a pyre, a silvery pyre of clouds, wherein a spirit may win oblivion and melt his essence fine, and scented eglantine gives sweets to the sun, and cold springs had run into the grass, and then the pulse of the mass pulsed tenfold to feel the glories old of the new born day, &c.

One example more.

Be still the unimaginable lodge
For solitary thinkings; such as dodge
Conception to the very bourne of heaven,
Then leave the naked brain: be still the leaven,
That spreading in this dull and clodded earth
Gives it a touch ethereal—a new birth. [p 17]

Lodge, dodge—heaven, leaven—earth, birth; such, in six words, is the sum and substance of six lines.

We come now to the author's taste in versification. He cannot indeed write a sentence, but perhaps he may be able to spin a line. Let us see. The following are specimens of his prosodial notions of our English heroic metre.

Dear as the temple's self, so does the moon,
The passion poesy, glories infinite. [p 4]

So plenteously all weed-hidden roots. [p 6]

Of some strange history, potent to send. [p 18]

Before the deep intoxication. [p 27]

Her scarf into a fluttering pavilion. [p 33]

The stubborn canvass for my voyage prepared—. [P 39]

Endymion! the cave is secreter
Than the isle of Delos. Echo hence shall stir
No sighs but sigh-warm kisses, or light noise
Of thy combing hand, the while it travelling cloys
And trembles through my labyrinthine hair. [p 48]

By this time our readers must be pretty well satisfied as to the meaning of his sentences and the structure of his lines: we now present them with some of the new words with which, in imitation of Mr. Leigh Hunt, he adorns our language.

We are told that "turtles passion their voices," (p 15); that "an arbour was nested," (p 23) and a lady's locks "gordian"d up," (p 32); and to supply the place of the nouns thus verbalized Mr. Keats, with great fecundity, spawns new ones; such as "men-slugs and human serpentry," (p 41) the "honey-feel of bliss," (p 45) "wives prepare needments," (p 13)—and so forth.

Then he has formed new verbs by the process of cutting off their natural tails, the adverbs and affixing them to their foreheads; thus "the wine out-sparkled," (p 10); the "multitude up-followed," (p 11); and night up-took, (p 29). "The wind up-blows," (p 32); and the "hours are down-sunken," (p 36).

But if he sinks some adverbs in the verbs, he compensates the language with adverbs and adjectives which he separates from the parent stock. Thus a lady "whispers pantingly and close," makes "hushing signs, and steers her skiff into a "ripply cove," (p 23); a shower falls "refreshfully," (45); and a vulture has a "spreaded tail," (p 44).

But enough of Mr. Leigh Hunt and his simple neophyte.—If any one should be bold enough to purchase this "Poetic Romance" and so much more patient, than ourselves, as to get beyond the first book, and so much more fortunate as to find a meaning, we entreat him to make us acquainted with his success; we shall then return to the task which we now abandon in despair, and endeavour to make all due amends to Mr. Keats and to our readers.

 

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