Any treatise claiming critical review of verse, whether in the widest sense, or, as in this case, the result of compressed choice, purely down to the author’s own consideration, I hasten to add, is probably deigned to fail as an intelligent summation of poetry penned by John Keats. That said, I must stress that my efforts are aimed at his poetry, without reference to his letters, which seems to have been normal practice years ago as, poetry and letters combined, claimed, for some contentious critics, the appellation of genius applied to Keats. A term bandied about all too easily.
Frankly, it is poetry that I love, in every case, and not the poet. Consider, as this poet with the bleeding pen wrote…

Singing of sad songs within his certain trust,
Uncaring of the censure he invites,
Languid hours of lyrists, long gone to dust,
Sound sweet amidst Quixotic troglodytes.

Perhaps with justification.

Should we deny the rights of any poet of standing, we deny our own existence. Poetical renascence has rampaged through the history of our elegant art. I cannot, nor would I claim, to be a part of any literary movement not absolutely grounded in genuine poetry. There is a great difference in ‘genuine poetry’ and that of, for example, the poetry of Pope. His Atticus piece is a masterful revelation of imagery classed as observation; but the poet consigns the work to simple speech within which Pope wields great power; power akin to the absolute best of his later satires; urbane utterances have their own place within the pantheon of poetic endeavour, and when one reads Pope’s epistle Of the Use of Riches, although still soft in tone, the epistle, brilliant though it is, hangs its hat upon the hook of critical condemnation…

ʼTis strange, the Miser should his Cares employ
To gain those Riches he can ne’er enjoy:
Is it less strange, the Prodigal should waste
His wealth, to purchase what he ne’er can taste?

Prodigals of poetry we are, and prodigals we shall remain until we learn to husband the essential qualities of deep and sincere poetical responses to life, left to us all as a very precious entity.
It would take far, far more space and time for me to evaluate even a small raft of riotous and wonderful verse, so let us turn to Master Keats.

If comparison has to prove of value it needs must insinuate itself into the mind as one might greet a memory. The cursed complexities of feeling should wander onto the page as a lamb and linger there as a lion. The presiding spirit of a sonnet might be divorced from its creator; and yet, should the composition fail, imagery and poor diction can also hang the poet high. Not the case with the youthful Keats.

All poetry should have the distinction of being read aloud before sentencing, in much the same way as a learned judge pronounces punishment. The assassination of a defenceless bard is easily accomplished by the careless critic. Therefore, my advice is to write, firstly, for self and then for the commoner. It is often dangerous to air critical consciousness; much like the condemned man mouthing his last prayer. Besides, the paying power of the commoner far outweighs the purse of the pandering rich! Simple arithmetic as applied by Robert Burns when he considered publication.

The serious and the superb are great ingredients of all good poetry, and perhaps I shall be forgiven in adopting the compression that instigated this truncated piece, poetry is a living tradition in every age, enjoy Keats at his best…taken from his “To Autumn”…

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, –
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And the full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

This Autumn poem goes far beyond my expectations of acceptance. As to comparison.

Closely connected with Shelley, the idea of Keats as a genius probably arose because of a letter delivered to Keats and certainly from Shelley advising that the latter would be delighted to play host should Keats visit Italy, where the Shelleys lived, at Pisa. Having re-read Endymion, written by Keats in fits and starts, Shelley praised the final version with just hint of patronizing criticism by writing, ‘In poetry I have sought to avoid system and mannerism; I wish those who excel me in genius, would pursue the same plan.’

Thus a fable was born. The very generous offer of playing host, as well as courteous and kindly advice that may improve future works by Keats, was misinterpreted.

Then, too; one must recall that Lamia, one of the poet’s major works, of which a copy resides in Harvard Library Bulletin, Keats offered up a version containing the couplet…

She fled into that valley they must pass
Who go from Corinth out to Cencreas*

The next attempted couplet contained an imperfect rhyme. Richard Woodhouse inserted…

She fled into that valley they pass o’er
Who go to Corinth from Cenchreas* shore.

The first couplet, written by Keats as a correction to a previous copy, merely exacerbated a spelling fault in an earlier version. Richard Woodhouse, a lawyer by profession and an unofficial adviser to the publishing firm of Taylor & Hessey, as well as being a close friend of Keats, corrected the piece and, in fact, wrote in what became one of the final lines in “Lamia.”

Woodhouse was the third signatory in the Taylor & Hessey publishing venture. During his association with these publishers, the work of Keats was scanned, to his great credit, voluntarily, by Woodhouse, correcting, cajoling and cutting out words and passages he felt were in need of change. Keats did not always bow to the demands of his benefactor, but in the case quoted, the hard-headed signatory knew that his version would, and did, appease public and critics alike. Quite often Keats’s lines would not scan, or crucial stresses were left out where Woodhouse felt they should appear, which he corrected.

I do not doubt the absolute mastery of John Keats, but I do question if a genius would submit incorrect lines to anyone, even to friends.


The Death Mask of John Keats

Sallow as sin, before the cloth of clay,
Waiting for those frosty nights of the grave,
Where snowdrops, famed for astute perception,
Made light of a lost treasure waiting; nay!
Sang to renewed heavens; here lies the brave,
The bard that carved life from love’s conception;
Such secrets of the potter’s hemlock laid bare,
No spinning wheel, just skilful fingers knead
And gently outline features, still as death;
His glazed eyes, luminous beyond compare,
Lock onto skalds of a different breed,
Bones that argue oer the bard’s shibboleth.

Burns smiled. “Read your script, to a friend of mine.”
Keats beamed and began to croon Auld Lang Syne.

© Sam Gilliland







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One Response

  1. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    This is a festival of poetry, both in the form of the essay, and in Mr. Gilliland’s verse communication with a poet of England’s past with whom our Scottish bard has much in common in the realm of purest lyricism.

    Thank you, Mr. Gilliland, for this magnificent treatise and its joyful illustration in verse.


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