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Beppo (1818) and Mazeppa (1819) disclosing for the first time something of the satiric humor, caught from Berni and Ariosto, which was to find complete expression in Don Juan, begun in 1819. With the exception of Manfred (1817), a variation of the Faust motive, showing the Byronic hero in a mood of despairing contemplation, instead of desperate activity, all Byron's plays follow upon this period.
Don Juan, which appeared from 1819 to 1824, has more and more come to be regarded as Byron's masterpiece and one of the great long poems of English literature. Its planless plan afforded the fullest scope for his discursive genius. He could put the whole of himself into it, as he could only partly express himself in the other forms which he attempted. Few poems, perhaps no other English poem, range so widely and so freely through the world. Though Byron may himself have lived neither wisely nor well, he lived largely and passionately, and he could report what life had presented to him. There are sides of man's nature to which Don Juan does not minister, but it is of service precisely where most men's experience, either with literature or life, is apt to be cramped and inarticulate. To be rightly understood, it must be read as a whole, and not for its occasional vulgarities.
No other English poet has enjoyed such a vogue throughout the rest of Europe as Byron. Partly because he embodied in himself tendencies which were European in character and partly because his poetry has a hard rhetorical brillance which excellently stands translation, and is perhaps even improved by it since in the original it is not infrequently marred by carelessness, he profoundly affected every European literature. Byron's powers were strong at the close of his life. Had his activities in the cause of Greek freedom met the success which they might well have earned, instead of being untimely cut off amid the fevers of Missolonghi, a very different Byron might have held a place in the world's memory, even if he had written no more great poetry.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822). The mass of Shelley's contemporaries knew him neither as a tall, freckled, curly-headed boy, even to his thirtieth year, speaking with shrill-voiced eloquence and poring over the books he carried in his pocket in utier disregard of such arbitrary matters as meals; nor did they know him for a great poet. From the world's point of view he was a monster of wickedness; from his own he was the most moral of beings because he always put into practice whatever commended itself to him as right and just. With the help of the philosopher, William Godwin, whose daughter, Mary, he afterwards married, he had persuaded himself that most human ills were due to the organization by which society had allowed itself to be enslaved. Remove these bonds and the natural goodness of man, perfectible to the highest degree under the right conditions, would triumphantly assert itself.
Such ideas, in part the cause and in part the outgrowth of the French Revolution, were shared by many among the English poets of this period. But where Coleridge and Southey were content to project an escape to an unrealized utopia on the banks of the Susquehanna, and Byron eased his mind by striking at the conventions of English society or at political tyranny in Italy and in Greece, Shelley proceeded at once to live the ideals which commended themselves to him. Such a course involves a total suppression of the sense of humor, which is man's device for getting on with things as they
He began, after six months' residence at Oxford, by trying to convince the bishops of the necessity of atheism, and was expelled ostensibly for refusing to avow the authorship of the pamphlet. When his young friend Harriet Westbrook seemed to him to be the victim of parental tyranny, he undertook to rescue her by marrying her. When, a few years later, they had drifted apart and Shelley was living in Switzerland with Mary Godwin, he invited Harriet, with the best intentions in the world, to join their household there. Harriei afterwards committed suicide by drowning herself in the Serpentine, but there is no evidence that her act was the result of her separation from her husband. It is possible to say some very hard things about Shelley's conduct
his contemporaries and Lord Eldon, the judge who deprived him of the custody of Harriet's children, did so; likewise, his father and grandfather, wealthy country squires; it would not have been possible, however, to convince Shelley, who was a very acute reasoner, that he had done anything but right.
Shelley's aim throughout his writings is not merely to show that man is bound, like Prometheus to the rocks of Caucasus, by tyrants of his own creation, but also to show him that he may be liberated by love. Didactic poetry of the obvious sort Shelley abhorred; he nevertheless proceeds on the assumption, often very naïvely held, that the mind of man can be quickened to action by the beauty of the poet's message, by the beauty which is the poet's message. Shelley to begin with was as much interested in science and in political and social theory as he was in literature. He came to feel that literature was for him the most effective vehicle and to the study of it and the production of it he gave himself unremittingly. For his writings he never received anything but misunderstanding abuse from the many and qualified praise from the few. Song rose from him naturally, distilling into the perfect drops of his shorter lyrics and the silver mist of his longer poems. If Keats' poetry is richly wrought, Byron's eloquently rhetorical, Coleridge's the reasonings of a dreamer and the dreams of a reasoner, Wordsworth's moulded by resistless pressure of character, Shelley's poetry soars like his own skylark leading the thoughts of men upwards by the beauty of tumultuous, seemingly unpremeditated song.
In Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude (1816), his first great poem, the youthful poet wanders through the world, losing himself in its loveliness, and in early death. The volume of 1819 contained, among other things, Lines Written among the Euganean Hills, Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, and Ozymandias. The first, which might profitably be compared with Milton's L'Allegro and I Penseroso, sets forth a day's meditation upon a scene which becomes a green and flowery isle upon the sea of life and agony; not merely a refuge for himself and for Byron (“tempest-cleaving Swan") but even more the type of the healing paradise, of such virtue that if it could be seen of all men
Every spite beneath the moon
And the world grow young again.
Man were immortal and omnipotent,
Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart. In contrast with this stands Ozymandias, mocking, in the bitter compression of the sonnet, the transitoriness of what ordinarily passes for human power.
Along with Prometheus Unbound (1820) appeared the Ode to the West Wind, fevered, tumultuous, but with assurance of spring beyond the winter of man's discontent; The Cloud, going with gusto about its varied business; and To a Skylark, up-soaring,
scorner of the ground,” which may be instructively compared with Wordsworth's more prudent, home-returning bird. Adonais (1821), a lament for Keats, belongs to the tradition of pastoral elegy which comes down from Theocritus through Virgil to Spenser and Milton. Less impressive than Lycidas because the sins of reviewers seem less important than the ecclesiastical evils which Milton made a part of his subject, its close moves to the highest levels of poetry.
Shelley met his death, doubtless with the total unconcern with which he always regarded his personal safety, when a little pleasure schooner, the delight of himself and his friend Williams, was swamped or run down in a storm on the bay of Spezzia. Another friend, Edward J. Trelawney, who has left a most interesting record of Shelley's
last years in Italy, burned the body of the poet on the sea beach, and his ashes were buried near the grave of Keats in Rome.
John Keats (1795-1821). Thomas Keats came to London from some corner of the West, found employment in a livery stable, married his employer's daughter, begot sons — John, George, and Thomas - and left a still young widow, decently provided for under her father's will. John was small, handsome, intensely pugnacious. After a good schooling, he was at sixteen apprenticed to an apothecary; and at twenty he became a medical student, “walking the hospitals” and attending lectures for a year and a half.
“The other day, during the lecture,” said Keats at this time, “there came a sunbeam into the room, and with it a whole troop of creatures floating on the ray; and I was off with them to Oberon and fairy-land.” Keats found every incentive to poetry, not only in his own rapidly developing nature, but also in his fortunate study of Spenser and Homer (in both Pope's and Chapman's versions), in early-formed friendships with young literary men like Leigh Hunt and Cowden Clarke, the artist Haydon, and others, and, above all, in the atmosphere of the moment, which was highly charged with poetic energy. His first volume, Poems by John Keats (1817), however, excited very little interest outside the circle of his enthusiastic friends. In it Keats is not yet a great poet, though it contains a poem since recognized as great, written betwixt dawn and breakfast after an October night's study with Cowden Clarke in 1816, On First Looking into Chapman's Homer.
Endymion (1818) was a challenge which the critics could not ignore. Keats's friends, after his death, allowed it to be believed, as Shelley believed when he wrote Adonais that adverse criticism had hastened the poet's end. It is evident from Keats's letters, from the Preface to Endymion, and from his habit of revising, that he was more dissatisfied with his poetry than even his critics. What they saw was an underbred youth, another of the “Cockney School" of poets - low fellows with radical tendencies
” telling a long, incoherent tale in negligent couplets, coining words, inventing compounds, often striving to make beauty more beautiful, and sometimes falling into a flat, conversational familiarity which he mistook for ease. What we see after a century is the Keats of the great poems of the 1820 volume, struck down in the fullness of his poetic powers. What he himself saw was the inadequacy of his bodily strength and the insufficiency of his intellectual discipline to the task of writing the kind of poetry he wished to write.
In Endymion, Keats takes up a myth, touched upon by more than one of his favorite Elizabethans, the loves of the shepherd Endymion and Cynthia (Diana, the Moon). It did not furnish him with a story and he hardly tries to invent one. The wanderings of Endymion, accompanied by his consoling sister, Peona, his dalliance with the Indian maiden who turns out to be his heavenly love, Cynthia, may in some large and general sense be taken to symbolize the poet's experience.
During the next two years, Keats saw his brother George married and emigrated to America; his brother Tom dead in his arms, of consumption; had fallen desperately in love with his next-door neighbor, Fanny Brawne, a girl of seventeen; had received his own speedy death warrant, hastened by the fevered anguish of his love for Fanny, and had written the poems which achieved for him his dearest wish to be numbered among the unforgotten. His last volume, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes and Other Poems, appeared in July, 1820, and in September he made a desperate journey to Italy, accompanied by his friend Severn. The following February, in Rome, he was released from what had become to him a death in life.
In the 1820 volume, are the three great tales, Isabella, or the Pot of Basil, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Lamia, and the three great odes, To Psyche, On a Grecian Urn, and To a Nightingale; and above them all glooms the mighty fragment of Hyperion. Opinion differs as to which of the tales is the best; as a narrative, undoubtedly, Isabella, but here he had the consummate art of Boccaccio to support him; for sheer power, probably Lamia, but the introductory episode is overweighted for the rest of the poem, and the significance of the whole, except as it shadows Keats's growing dread that the poetry of sensation and beautiful imagery to which he had devoted himself might take fight before the "philosophy" of which he felt he must possess himself and leave him nothing, is not altogether satisfying; against the Eve of St. Agnes, there is nothing to be alleged except that it is romantic; of romantic poetry it remains the perfect example. In the odes Keats is at his best, allowing the meditation of a simple theme to present to him a succession of images, felt with a warmth and seen with a clarity which leave the reader as rich as the poet himself. Hyperion is the result of Keats's close study of Milton. He gave as his reason for abandoning it that it contained too many Miltonic inversions. While the influence of Milton is marked, it is very far from a case of prentice imitation, but rather the voice of one master of harmony speaking to another in a language of which only they two fully know the range and compass. In revising it, he was playing a losing game with broken health and a poetic purpose which had not yet worked itself clear. It was Hyperion that gained for Keats the first expression of unqualified admiration from Shelley and from the wider circle of critics and readers which was not wholly composed of his devoted personal friends.
Not included in the 1820 volume, but printed in Leigh Hunt's Indicator for May 20, 1820, with unfortunate alterations, is La Belle Dame sans Merci. The title and no more, Keats took from a fifteenth century French poem ; the theme of the fairy mistress, however, is one of the commonest in medieval story. To this Keats adds all his own love of love and love of beauty, out of which he wakes on the cold hillside, alone and palely loitering.
Two sonnets, one written in 1818 and the other in 1819, may serve as examples of Keats's yearning for the quiet and sense of permanence which life denied him. The second sonnet he copied out in a volume of Shakespeare's Poems belonging to his friend Severn on board the ship which was taking him to Italy.