An Essay Picked by blupete

"My Copy Of Keats"
By Richard Dowling (1846-98)

The only copy of Keats I ever owned is a modest volume published by Edward Moxon & Co. in the year 1861. By writing on its yellow fly-leaf I find it was given to me four years later in September, 1865. At that time it was clean and bright, opened with strict impartiality when set upon its back, and had not learned to respond with alacrity to hasty researches for favourite passages.

The binding is now racked and feeble from use; and if, as in army regulations, service under warm suns is to be taken for longer service in cooler climes, it may be said that to the exhaustion following overwork have been added the prejudices of premature age.

It is not bound as books were bound once upon a time, when they outlasted the tables and chairs, even the walls; ay, the very races and names of their owners. The cover is simple plain blue cloth; on the back is a little patch of printing in gold, with the words Keats' Poetical Works in the centre of a twined gilt ribbon and twisted gilt flowers. The welt at the back is bleached and frayed; the corners of the cover are battered and turned in. There is a chink between the cover and the arched back; and the once proud Norman line of that are is flattened and degraded, retaining no more of its pristine look of sturdy strength than a wheaten straw after the threshing....

If any owner of a cart of old books in Farringdon Street asked you a shilling for such a copy of Keats as mine, you would smile at him. You would think he had acquired the books merely to satisfy his own taste, and now displayed them to gratify a vanity that was intelligible; you would feel assured no motive toward commerce could underlie ever so deeply such a preposterous demand.

My copy will, I think, last my time. Already it has been in my hands more than half the years of a generation; and I feel that its severest trials are over. In days gone by it made journeys with me by sea and land, and paid long visits to some friends, both when I went myself, and when I did not go. Change of air and scene have had no beneficial effect upon it. Journey after journey, and visit after visit, the full cobalt of the cloth grew darker and dingier, the boards of the cover became limper and limper, and the stitching at the back more apparent between the sheets, like the bones and sinews growing outward through the flesh of a hand waxing old....

My Keats has suffered from many pipes, many thumbs, many pencils, many quills, many pockets. Not one stain, am gape, one blot of these would I forego for a spick and span copy in all the gorgeous pomp of the bookbinder's millinery. These blemishes are aureole to me. They are nimbi around the brows of the gods and demi-gods, who walk in the triumph of their paternal despot on the clouds metropolitan that embattle the heights of Parnassus.

What a harvest of happy memories is garnered in its leaves! How well I remember the day it got that faint yellow stain on the page where begins the Ode on a Grecian Urn. It was a clear, bright, warm, sunshiny afternoon late in the month of May. Three of us took a boat and rowed down a broad blue river, ran the nose of the boat ashore on the gravel beach of a sequestered island and landed. Pulling was warm work, and we all climbed a slope, reached the summit, and cast ourselves down on the long lush cool grass, in the shade of whispering sycamores, and in a stream of air that came fresh with the cheering spices of the hawthorn blossom.

One of our company was the best chamber reader I have ever heard. His voice was neither very melodious nor very full. Perhaps he was all the better for this because he made no effort at display. As he read, the book vanished from his sight, and he leaned over the poet's shoulder, saw what the poet saw, and in a voice timid with the sense of responsibility, and yet elated with a kind of fearing joy, told of what he saw in words that never hurried, and that, when uttered, always seemed to hang substantially in the air like banners.

He discovered and related the poet's vision rather than simulated passion to suit the scene. I remember well his reading of the passage:

"Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal -- yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love and she be fair!"
He rehearsed the whole of the ode over and over again as we lay on the grass watching the vast chestnuts and oaks bending over the river, as though they had grown aweary of the sun, and longed to glide into the broad full stream.

As he read the lines just quoted, he gave us time to hear the murmur, and to breathe the fragrance of those immortal trees. "Nor ever can those trees be bare," in the text has only a semicolon after it. Yet here he paused, while three wavelets broke upon the beach, as if he could not tear himself away from contemplating the deathless verdure, and realising the prodigious edict pronounced upon it. "Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss, though winning near the goal." At the terrible decree he raised his eyes and gazed with heavy-lidded, hopeless commiseration at this being, who, still more unhappy than Tithonus, had to immortality added perpetual youth, with passion forever strong, and denial forever final.

"Yet do not grieve." This he uttered as one who pleads forgiveness of a corpse -- merely to try to soothe a conscience sensible of an obligation that can never now be discharged. "She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, for ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!" Here the reader, with eyes fixed and rayless, seemed by voice and pose to be sunk, beyond all power of hope, in an abyss of despair. The barren immutability of the spectacle appeared to weigh upon him more intolerably than the wreck of a people. He spoke the words in a long drawn-out whisper, and, after a pause, dropped his head, and did not resume.

I recollect that when the illusion he wrought up so fully in my mind had passed away in that long pause, and when I remembered that the fancy of the poet was expending itself, not on beings whom he conceived originally as humans, but on the figures of a mere vase, I was seized with a fierce desire to get up and seek that vase through all the world until I found it, and then smash it into ten thousand atoms.

When I had written the last sentence, I took up the volume to decide where I should recommence, and I "turned the page, and turned the page." I lived over again the days not forgotten, but laid aside in memory to be borne forth in periods of high festival. I could not bring myself back from the comrades of old, and the marvels of the great magician, to this poor street, this solitude, and this squalid company of my own thoughts -- thoughts so trivial and so mean compared with the imperial visions into which I had been gazing, that I was glad for the weariness which came upon me, and grateful to gray dawn that glimmered against the blind and absolved me from further obligation for that sitting.

On turning over the leaves without reading, I find Hyperion opens most readily of all, and seems to have feared worst from deliberate and unintentional comment. Much of the wear and tear and pencil marks are to be set down against myself; for when I take the book with no definite purpose I turn to Hyperion, as a blind man to the warmth of the sun. Some qualities of the poem I can appreciate; but always in its presence I am weighed down by the consciousness that my deficiency in some perception debars me from undreamed of privileges.

I recall one evening in a pine glen with one man and Hyperion. It would be difficult to match this man or me as readers. I don't think there can be ten worse employing the English language to-day. I not only do not by any inflexion of voice expound what I utter, but, I am often incapable of speaking the words before me. I take in a line at a glance, see its import with my own imagination apart from the verbiage, which leaves not a shadow of an impression on my mind. When I come to the next line I grow suddenly alive to the fact that I have to speak off the former one. I am in a hurry to see what line two has to show; so, instead of giving the poet's words for line one, I give my own description of the vision it has conjured up in my mind. This is bad enough in all conscience; but the friend of whom I speak now, behaves even worse. His plan of reading is to stop his voice in the middle of line one, and proceed to discuss the merits of line two, which he had read with his eye, but not with his lips, and of which the listener is ignorant, unless he happen to know the poem by rote.

On that evening in the glen I pulled out Keats, and turned at my friend's request, to Hyperion, and began to read aloud. He was more patient than mercy's self; but occasionally, when I did a most exceptionally bad murder on the text, he would writhe and cry out, and I would go back and correct myself, and start afresh.

He had a big burly frame, and a deep full voice that shouted easily, and some of the comments shouted as I read are indicated by pencil marks in the margin. The writing, was not done then, but much later, when he and I had shaken hands, and he had gone sixteen thousand miles away. As he was about to set out on that long journey, he said, "In seven years more I'll drop in and have a pipe with you." It had been seven years since I saw him before. The notes on the margin are only keys to what was said; for I fear the comment made was more bulky than the text, and the text and comment together would far exceed the limits of such an essay as this. I therefore curtail greatly, and omit much.

I read down the first page without meeting any interruption; but when I came in page two on;

"She would have ta'en
Achilles by the hair and bent his neck,"
he cried out, "Stop! Don't read the lines following. It is bathos compared with that line and a half. It is paltry and weak beside what you have read. 'Ta'en Achilles by the hair and bent his neck.' By Jove! can you not see the white muscles start out in his throat, and the look of rage, defeat and agony on the face of the Greek bruiser? But how flat falls the next line: 'Or with a finger stay'd Ixion's wheel'? Besides, a crowbar would be much better than a finger. It is a line for children, not for grown men. It exhausts the subject. It is too literal. There is no question left to ask. But the vague 'Ta'en Achilles by the hair and bent his neck' is perfect. You can see her knee in the hollow of his back, and her fingers twisted in his hair. But the image of the goddess dabbling in that river of hell after Ixion's wheel is contemptible."

He next stopped me at

"Until at length old Saturn lifted up
His faded eyes, and saw his kingdom gone."
"What an immeasurable vision Keats must have had of the old bankrupt Titan when he wrote the second line! Taken in the context it is simply overwhelming. Keats must have sprung up out of his chair as he saw the gigantic head upraised and the prodigious grief of the gray-haired god. But Keats was not happy in the matter of full stops. Here again what comes after weakens. We get no additional strength out of
"And all the gloom and sorrow of the place
And that fair kneeling goddess.
The 'gloom and sorrow' and the 'goddess' are abominably anticlimacteric."
"Yes, there must be a golden victory;
There must be gods thrown down and trumpets blown
Of triumph calm, and hymns of festival
Upon the gold clouds metropolitan,
Voices of soft proclaim, and silver stir
Of strings in hollow shells; and there shall be
Beautiful things made new, for the surprise
Of the sky-children; I will give command:
Thea! Thea! Thea! where is Saturn?"
"Read that again!" cried my friend, clinging to the grass and breathing hard. "Again!" he cried, when I had finished the second time. And then, before I could proceed, he sprang to his feet, carrying out the action in the text immediately following;
"This passion lifted him upon his feet,
And made his hands to struggle in the air."
Come on, John Milton," cried my friend, excitedly sparring at the winds -- "come on, and beat that, and we'll let you put all your adjectives behind your nouns, and your verb last, and your nominative nowhere! Why, man." this being addressed to the Puritan poet -- "it carried Keats himself off his legs; that's more than anything you ever wrote when you were old did for you. There's the smell of midnight oil off your later spontaneous efforts, John Milton.

"When John Milton went loafing about and didn't mind much what he was writing he could give any of them points" -- (I deplore the language) "any of them, ay, Shakespeare himself points in a poem. In a poem, sir" (this to me), "Milton could give Shakespeare a hundred and one out of a hundred and lick the Bard easily. How the man who was such a fool as to write Shakespeare's poems had the good sense to write Shakespeare's plays I can never understand. The most un-Shakespearian poems in the language are Shakespeare's. I never read Cowley, but it seems to me Cowley ought to have written Shakespeare's poems, and then his obscurity would have been complete. If Milton only didn't take the trouble to be great he would have been greater. As far as I know there are no English poets who improved when they ceased to be amateurs and became professional poets, except Wordsworth and Tennyson. Shelley and Keats were never regular race-horses. They were colts that bolted in their first race and ran until they dropped. It was a good job Shakespeare gave up writing rhymes and posing as a poet. It was not until he despaired of becoming one and took to the drama that he began to feel his feet and show his pace. If he had suspected he was a great poet he would have adopted the aim of the profession and been ruined. In his time no one thought of calling a play a poem -- that was what saved the greatest of all our poets to us. The only two things Shakespeare didn't know is that a play may be a poem and that his plays are the finest poems finite man as he is now constructed can endure. It is all nonsense to say man shall never look on the like of Shakespeare again. It is not the poet superior to Shakespeare man now lacks, but the man to apprehend him."

I looked around uneasily, and found, to my great satisfaction, that there was no stranger in view. My friend occupied a position of responsibility and trust, and it would be most injurious if a rumour got abroad that not only did he read and admire verse, but that he held converse with the shades of departed poets as well. In old days man who spoke to the vacant air were convicted of necromancy and burned; in our times men offending in this manner are suspected of poetry and ostracised.

As soon as my friend was somewhat cast himself down again and lit a pipe, I resumed my reading. He allowed me to proceed without interruption until I came to

"His palace bright,
Bastion'd with pyramids of glowing gold,
And touch'd with shade of bronzed obelisks,
Glared a blood-red through all its thousand courts,
Arches, and domes, and fiery galleries;
And all its curtains of Aurorian clouds
Flushed angerly: while sometimes eagles' wings,
Unseen before by Gods or wondering men,
Darken'd the place; and neighing steeds were heard,
Not heard before by Gods or wondering men."
"Prodigious!" he shouted. "Go over that again. Keep the syllables wide apart. It is a good rule of water-colour sketching not to be too nice about joining the edges of the tints; this lets the light in. Keep the syllables as far apart as ever you can, and let the silentness in between to clear up the music. How the gods and the wondering men must have wondered! Do you know, I am sure Keats often frightened, terrified himself with his own visions. You remember he says somewhere he doesn't think any one could dare to read some one or another aloud at midnight. I believe that often in the midnight he sat and cowered before the gigantic sights and sounds that reigned despotically over his fancy."
"0 dreams of day and night!
0 monstrous forms! 0 effigies of pain!
0 spectres busy in a cold, cold gloom!
0 lank-eared Phantoms of black-weeded pools!
Why do I know ye? why have I seen ye? why
Is my eternal essence thus distraught
To see and to behold these horrors new?
Saturn is fallen, am I too to fall?
Am I to leave this haven of my rest,
This cradle of my glory, this soft clime,
This calm luxuriance of blissful light,
This crystalline pavilions, and pure fanes,
Of all my lucent empire? It is left
Deserted, void, nor any haunt of mine.
The blaze, the splendour, and the symmetry
I cannot see -- but darkness, death, and darkness.
Even here, into my centre of repose,
The shady visions come to domineer,
Insult, and blind and stifle up my pomp
Fall! -- No, by Tellus and her briny robes!
Over the fiery frontier of my realms
I will advance a terrible right arm
Shall scare that infant thunderer, rebel Jove,
And bid old Saturn take his throne again."
"What more magnificent prelude ever was uttered to oath than the portion of this speech preceding. 'No. by Tellus!' What more overpowering, leading up to an overwhelming threat, than the whole passage going before 'Over the fiery frontier of my realms I will advance a terrible right arm!' What menacing deliberativeness there is in this whole speech, and what utter completeness of ruin to come is indicated by those words, 'I will advance a terrible right arm'! You feel no sooner shall that arm move than 'rebel Jove's' reign will be at an end, and chaos will be left for Saturn to rule and fashion once more into order. Shut up the poem now. That's plenty of Hyperion, and the other books of it are inferior. There is more labour and more likeness to Paradise Lost." And so my, friend, who is 16,000 miles away, and I turned from the Titanic theme, and spoke of the local board of guardians, or some young girl whose beauty was making rich misery in the hearts of young men in those old days.

There is no other long poem in the volume bearing any marks which indicate such close connection with any individual reader as in the case of Hyperion. Endymion boasts only one mark, and that expressing admiration of the relief afforded from monotony of the heroic couplets by the introduction in the opening of the double rhyming verses:

"Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing --"
The friend to whom this mark is due never handled the volume, never even saw it; but once upon a time when he, another man, and I had got together, and were talking of the "gallipot poet," the first friend said he always regarded this couplet as most happily placed where it appears. So when I reached home I marked my copy at the lines. Now, when I open the volume and find that mark, it is as good to me as, better than, a photograph of my friend; for I not only see his face and figure, but once more he places his index-finger on the table, as we three sit smoking, and whispers out the six opening lines, ending with the two I have quoted. Suppose I too should some day go 16,000 miles away from London, and carry this volume with me, shall I not be able to open it when I please, and recall what I then saw and heard, what I now see and hear, as distinctly as though no long interval of ocean or of months lay between to-night and that hour? ...

When I take down my copy of Keats, and look through it and beyond it, I feel that while it is left to me I cannot be wholly shorn of my friends. It is the only album of photographs I possess. The faces I see in it are not for any eye but mine. It is my private portrait gallery, in which hang the portraits of my dearest friends. The marks and blots we intelligible to no eye but mine; they are the cherished hieroglyphics of the heart. I close the book; I lock up the hieroglyphics; I feel certain the book will last my time. Should it survive me and pass into new hands -- into the hands of some boy now unborn, who may pluck out of it posies of love-phrases for his fresh-cheeked sweetheart -- he will know nothing of the import these marginal notes bore to one who has gone before him; unless, indeed, out of some cemetery of ephemeral literature he digs up this key -- this Rosetta stone.

-- Richard Dowling (1846-98):
(Richard Dowling started out as a journalist. In 1870 he joined
the staff of The Nation,, a Dublin publication. In 1875 Dowling
took himself off to London, where he wrote for periodicals.
Dowling also turned to novel writing. An obituary notice, said of him,
"He was one of the kindest-hearted of men, and an admirable talker,
whose wit and vivacity remained unimpaired almost to the end."
Dowling's two most important volumes are Indolent Essays and
Ignorant Essays (Appleton), of which, it is suggested, the latter is the
best, and from which our selection is taken.

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Peter Landry