In the heart of London, near to Finsbury Circus, there was once a tavern called the Swan and Hoop, and adjoining it a livery stable. The latter was a prosperous concern, and the proprietor was a man of substance. His name was Jennings; that of his head stableman, Keats.
Thomas Keats was one of those mysterious beings who are described evasively as Nature's gentlemen. Frank, manly, honest, and unassuming, he was quite a delightful person, and, as such, won first the admiration, then the heart, of his master's daughter. Thereupon-for he was also wise-he asked for the lady's hand. She gave it to him. And so it was that he found himself upon the golden road which leads to self-advancement, or, at any rate, to comfort.
John Keats, the poet, was the first child of this marriage. He began his troubled life on October 31, 1795. And a troubled life it was, troubled and short. Perhaps it would be natural to assume that he must have been an infant prodigy, for he lived but twenty-five years, and in that short space of time, in spite of suffering, succeeded in engraving his name indelibly on the records of the immortals. But he was not an infant prodigy. As a child he was merely wild, pugnacious, and ungovernable, and as a boy he earned no greater reputation than that of "a very orderly scholar."
While still a pupil at the Rev. Clarke's school at Enfield he lost both his parents-his father in 1804, and his mother a few years later. Her death was a sorry blow to him. He loved his mother. She died of consumption, and the relentless malady was inborn in her children. In John it did not manifest itself immediately, but he was always delicate and abnormally sensitive. In spite of an innate love for beauty, even as a child his outlook on life was morbid. Perhaps his sub-conscious self was aware of the heritage of birth, and saw the shadow of death lying across his path.
Keats began his career by studying medicine. He was apprenticed first to a surgeon of repute, one Mr. Hammond, and then he duly walked St. Thomas's Hospital. But his heart was not in his profession. All the time his genius was summoning him to the fields of literature. His friends and relatives refused to recognise the call. He himself was slow in hearing it, and, although he revelled in the glories of Nature, dreamed lovely dreams, interlined with verse grim scientific notes, and longed "for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts," he wasted many precious years before he understood that he was destined to be a poet. Not until his friendship with Leigh Hunt, then editor of "The Examiner," ripened into intimacy did the great truth dawn upon him.
The love story of John Keats is quite unlike any of the romances which have preceded it in this series. It is not the story of a great passion; it is essentially artificial, an idyll, a dream, the creation of a poet.
But it is, none the less, intensely sincere and full of pathos.
In the year 1818, while he was lodging at Hampstead with his friend Charles Brown, he became on friendly terms with two women, and in letters to his brother George he has left on record his earliest opinions of them both. Miss Cox, the girl whom he met first, was, it would seem, endowed with a very considerable power of fascination; she impressed even the unimpressionable Keats. "She is not a Cleopatra," he wrote, "but is, at least, a Charmian; she has a rich Eastern look; she has fine eyes and fine manners. When she comes into a room, she makes the same impression as the beauty of a leopardess. ... I always find myself more at ease with such a woman. I am at such times too much occupied in admiring to be awkward or in a tremble; I forget myself entirely. . . ."
The inference from this eulogy is obvious. Keats himself saw it, for the letter continued, "You will by this time think I am in love with her; so, before I go further, I will tell you I am not." But the wise man wags his head and smiles. To him the symptoms are unmistakable. But this is where the wise man displays his folly; he thinks he knows the rules of love. There are no rules. At any rate, by his infatuation for Fanny Brawne, Keats violated every principle which could be conceived as such. This is his first impression of the lady:
"She is about my height, with a fine style of countenance of the lengthened sort. She wants sentiment in every feature. She manages to make her hair look well; her nostrils are very fine, though a little painful; her mouth is bad, and good; her profile is better than her full face, which, indeed, is not 'full,' but pale and thin, without showing any bone; her shape is very graceful, and so are her movements; her arms are good, her hands badish, her feet tolerable. ... But she is ignorant, monstrous in her behaviour, flying out in all directions; calling people such names that I was forced lately to make use of the term 'minx.' . . . I am . . . tired of such a style, and shall decline any more of it."
It may be easier to criticise than to abide by one's criticism; but, none the less, this letter does not augur well as the beginning of a great romance. Cupid's methods, however, are many and mysterious. It was his will that Fanny Brawne, not Miss Cox, should become the object of Keats' devotion, and a source of inspiration to his genius. And, as he willed, so it was. Of Miss Cox we shall hear no more. This, perhaps, is to be deplored, for surely, unless Keats' description of her be false, a more splendid heroine for romance it would be hard to find.
What turned the poet's dislike for Fanny Brawne to love is a question which must remain unanswered. The evolution is wrapped in mystery, and Keats, the one man who could explain it, is himself strangely reticent. He was not a sentimentalist. On principle he disapproved of human love, because he felt that its importance had been exaggerated.