Sunday, December 18, 2016

`Verbal Felicities and Labours'

Here is Keats the swain, the would-be Lothario and dedicated writer of verse and prose, writing on this date, Dec. 18, to his friend Richard Woodhouse, in 1818:

“I have a new leaf to turn over: I must work; I must read; I must write. I am unable to afford time for new acquaintances. I am scarcely able to do my duty to those I have. Leave the matter to chance. But do not forget to give my remembrances to your cousin.”

Few writers have been so unfairly characterized by posterity as Keats. No sensitive plant, he is a tough-minded Cockney who, as a medical student, dissected decomposing corpses brought to Guy’s Hospital by grave robbers. When Keats was eight, his father died from a fractured skull after falling from a horse. When he was fourteen, his mother died from tuberculosis, the disease that killed his brother Tom just weeks before he wrote the letter quoted above, and that would kill him little more than two years later, at age twenty-five. Keats was intimately acquainted with disease and death. Ford Madox Ford, the arch-Modernist, singles out the Romantic poet for the highest praise in The March of Literature (1938):

“Before Keats alone, of all these poets—except perhaps Christina Rossetti—the impatient prose writer must sheathe his scalpel. Before the century closed—and even in the hands of Landor—prose had become the only keen instrument of the scrupulous writer. But the verbal felicities and labours of Keats placed him not infrequently beside any prose writer that you like to name. And in words he was a perfectly conscious and perfectly self critical artist.”

In a passage more than two-hundred pages earlier, after describing the “super-delight” that marks the writing of Sir Thomas Browne, Izaak Walton, the Earl of Clarendon and Samuel Pepys, Ford launches another provocation regarding the art of prose: “It is to be remembered that a passage of good prose is a work of art absolute in itself and with no more dependence on its contents than is a fugue of Bach, a minuet of Mozart, or the writings for the piano of Debussy.”

The letters of Keats contain some of the finest prose in the language, and outweigh in interest most of his poetry.

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