[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



John Keats (1818)

Grolier Club new York, 1995, limited edition of 225 copies; silk covered boards with tobacco morocco label embossed in gold, in slip case with marled paper; paper specially hand made by the Cardinal Mill in the Czech Republic; with portrait of Keats, facsimile of one of the letters, and map all tipped in separately.

All I hope is that we may not be taken for excisemen in this whiskey country.  We are generally up about 5 walking before breakfast, and we complete our 20 miles before dinner.

In June 1818, John Keats and a friend set out on walking tour of the English Lake District and Scotland.  He was twenty-two and had just published his second book of poetry, Endymion.  We saw with Milton that intelligence does not preclude art.  It is just as well – Keats, one of the great romantic poets, shows an astonishing IQ in prose.  This is from the first letter:

The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance……I cannot think with Hazlitt that these scenes make man appear little.  I never forgot my stature so completely; I live in the eye, and my imagination, surpassed, is at rest.

Hazlitt, too, was very bright, but this difference between them is very revealing.  The English come across some Scottish dancers – ‘they kickit and jumpit…..and whiskit, and fleckit, and toed it and goed it, and twirld it    tattooing the floor like mad.’

I hope I shall not return without having got the Highland fling.  There was as fine a row of boys and girls as you ever saw, some beautiful faces, and one exquisite mouth.  I never felt so near the glory of patriotism, the glory of making by any means a country happier.  This is what I like better than scenery.  I fear our continued moving from place to place will prevent our becoming learned in village affairs; we are mere creatures of rivers, lakes, and mountains.

Could Wordsworth have said that?  Rivers, lakes and mountains are just fine, but there is more to us than fire, water, stone and air – and it was not just Bishop Berkeley who may have said that they are nothing to us unless we are there to see and feel them.  They may as well be on the other side of the moon.

The dialect on the neighbouring shores of Scotland and Ireland is much the same – yet I can perceive a great difference in the nations from the chambermaid at this …. inn kept by Mr Kelly.  She is fair, kind, and ready to laugh, because she is out of the horrible dominion of the Scotch kirk.  A Scotch girl stands in terrible awe of the elders – poor little Susannahs.  They will scarcely laugh – they are greatly to be pitied, and the kirk is greatly to be damned.  These kirkmen have done Scotland good (query?): they have made men, women, old men, young men, old women and young women, boys, girls and infants all careful – so that they are formed into regular phalanges of savers and gainers…..These kirkmen have done Scotland harm: they have banished puns and laughing and kissing…..I….go on to remind you of the fate of Burns.  Poor unfortunate fellow – his disposition was southern.  How sad it is when a luxurious imagination is obliged in self-defence to deaden its delicacy in vulgarity, and riot in things attainable that it may not have leisure to go mad after things which are not.  No man in such matters will be content with the experience of others.  It is true that out of sufferance there is no greatness, no dignity; that in the most abstracted pleasure there is no lasting happiness: yet who would not like to discover over and again that Cleopatra was a gypsy, Helen a rogue, and Ruth a deep one?……We live in a barbarous age. I would sooner be a wild deer than a girl under the dominion of the kirk, and I would sooner be a wild hog than be the occasion of a poor creature’s penance before those execrable elders.

What a plea do we have here for suffering humanity!  Let this text be nailed to the door of every gloomy kirkman or other prelate.

And he was still so young, and would die so young.

When I was a schoolboy I thought a pure woman a pure goddess; my mind was a soft nest in which some of them slept, although she knew it not.  I have no right to expect more than their reality.  I thought them ethereal above men; I find them perhaps equal.  Great by comparison is very small…..for after all I do think more of womankind than to suppose they care whether Mister John Keats five feet high likes them or not.

Here is a candour about sex that the crusty Anglo-Saxon will let go straight through to the ‘keeper’.

Near the end of the last of these letters, this great poet offers an insight into what drives this fiery romantic imagination in a way that recalls one of his best known poems and is an enduring testament to our crumbling humanity.

…..went up Ben Nevis, and NB came down again.  Sometimes when I am rather tired, I lean rather languidly on a rock, and long for some famous beauty to get down from her palfrey in passing, approach me – with her saddle bags – and give me – a dozen or two capital roast beef sandwiches.

There, dear Reader, you have the whole secret, heretofore hidden, of that great movement in art known as the Romantic Rebellion.  A decent round of sandwiches – roast beef, of course.

I have three editions of Keats’ letters, including a fine old edition of the complete letters owned and signed by Henry Cabot Lodge.  This present edition is the most luxuriant book in the hands of all those on this shelf – the paper is hand-made and rough cut at the bottom and the sides, and the facsimile letter, map, and portrait help bring the letters alive – not that they need all that much help.

Keats followed Shakespeare all his life.  He turned to Shakespeare for precisely those reasons that others turn to Scripture – for inspiration, for guidance, for discipline, and for faith.  He was to tell Severn that he could not ‘believe your book – the bible’.  In truth, Shakespeare was his bible.

The father of Keats was involved in keeping an inn.  That was enough in England then, as it is in Australia now, to dint the ideas of inclusiveness of some people.  Keats had to live with this snobbery – Shelley, who was not immune from the complaint, said that it killed him.

It is hard to imagine the idol of Keats as a snob.  It is not just that Shakespeare had to spend so much of his time with actors, as that he had to know what the crowd wanted and would pay to see, and he had to be able to characterise those who made up that crowd.  Shakespeare loved creating characters at the bottom of the ladder.   He went for women like Cleopatra, Helen and Ruth – Helen had nothing on Cressida.

Keats saw Edmund Kean play in at least the roles of Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and Timon.  When he wrote his own play Otho, there were over forty borrowings from seventeen of the plays of Shakespeare.  When he published his most popular poem, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, he did so under the name Caviare, a reference to Hamlet.  When he died in Rome, he had his seven volume set of Shakespeare by his bed. He had acquired a tasselled portrait of Shakespeare on the Isle of Wight and this, too, was with him at the end.  It was as if the two were on speaking terms. When Mrs Hunt told him he would be invited to a party for Shakespeare’s birthday, Keats told his brothers that ‘Shakespeare would stare to see me there’.

Matthew Arnold made a comment which may remind you of how religious people describe the condition of one of their faithful.  He said that Keats ‘is with Shakespeare’.  Arnold said that ‘…the younger poet’s work was not imitative indeed of Shakespeare, but Shakespearean because its expression has that rounded perfection and felicity of loveliness of which Shakespeare is the great master’.

But the observation of Keats about Shakespeare for which we best remember him comes from a letter to his brothers:  ‘At once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.’  You might think that this is just the start of a mature view of the world, but the observation might usefully be put up in bright lights on the rear wall of every court in the country.  It is the foundation of tolerance, and its absence marks the beginning of intolerance.

Shelley waited until Keats was dead to defend him.  He then spoke of ‘A pardlike Spirit beautiful and swift’ fleeing ‘Far from those carrion kites that scream below’.  It is no surprise that T S Eliot, who could not have written a poem of the natural charm of those of Keats, said that he was intent on analysing not the degree of greatness of Keats but its kind, ‘and its kind is manifested more clearly in his letters than his poems’.  Rather like squirting the score of the Liebestod from Tristan with an antiseptic syringe.

If you have dragged yourself up the Grampians in Victoria and obtained an exhausted view of one hundred feet of mist, you will recognize a lot in these letters.  One difference is that Keats thought that twenty miles a day was about par.  Another was that having gained the top of Ben Nevis, he could punch out a sonnet on the spot.

I look into the chasms, and a shroud

Vaprous doth hide them; just so much I wist

Mankind do know of hell; I look o’erhead,

And there is sullen mist; even so much

Mankind can tell of heaven; mist is spread

Before the earth beneath me; even such,

Even so vague is man’s sight of himself.

It is hard, off hand, to think of anyone with a more clear-eyed view of the world than poor little John Keats.  If only someone could tell him that his name was not writ on water.

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