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In a list of new books preceding the biography of the poet I find the volume I speak of under the head “Poetry —Pocket Editions;” described as “Keats’s Poetical Works. With a Memoir by R. M. Milnes. Price 3s. 6d. cloth.” It was from no desire to look my gift-horse in the mouth I alighted upon the penultimate fact disclosed in the description. When I become owner of any volume my first delight in it is to read the catalogue of new books annexed, if there be any, before breaking my fast upon the subject-matter of the writer in my hand – as a poor gentleman in a spacious restaurant, who, having ordered luncheon, consisting of bread and cheese, butter, and a half-pint of bitter ale, takes up the bill of fare and the list of wines, and designs for his imagination a feast his purse denies to his lips.
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 towards 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.
Once, when the book had been on a prolonged excursion away from me, it returned sadly out of sorts. Had it been a dear friend come back from India on sick-leave, after an absence from temperate skies of twenty years, I could not have observed a more disquieting change. The cover was darkened so that the original hue had almost wholly disappeared, save at the edges, that, like the Indian veteran’s forehead, were of startling and unwholesome pallor. Its presence in such guise aroused a gnawing solicitude which undermined all peace. I could not endure the symptoms of its speedy decline, the prospect of its dissolution; and to shield its case from harm and my sensibilities from continual assault, I wrapped it with sighs and travail of heart in a gritty cover of substantial brown paper.
For a while, the consciousness that my book was safe compensated for the unfamiliarity of its appearance and my constitutional antipathy to contact with brown paper, even a lively image of which makes me cringe.
But as days went on the brown paper entered into my soul and rankled. What! was my Keats to be clad in that wretched union garb, that livery of poverty acknowledged, that corduroy of the bookshelf? Intolerable! Should I, who had, like other men, only my time to live, be denied all friendly sight of the natural seeming of my prime friend? My Keats would last my time; and why should I hide my friend in an unparticularised garb, the uniform of the mean or the needy, merely that those who came after me might enjoy a privilege of which senseless timidity sought to rob me? No; that should not be.I would cast away the badge of beggary, and, like a man, face the daily decay of my old companion. I tore the paper off, threw it upon the fire, and set my disenthralled Keats in its own proper vesture on the shelf among its comrades and its peers.
There is no man, how poor soever, who has not some taste which, for his circumstances, must be regarded as expensive; and in that “sweet unreasonableness” of human nature, not at all limited to “the Celt,” men take a kind of foolish pride in their particular extravagances. You know a man that declares he would sooner go without his dinner than a clean shirt; another who would prefer one good cigar to a pound of cavendish; one who would rather travel to the City of winter mornings by train without an overcoat than by vulgar tramcar in fur and pilot cloth; a fourth who would more gladly give his right hand than forget his Greek; a fifth who pays the hire of a piano and does without the beer which as a Briton is his birthright; a sixth who starves himself and stints his family for the love of a garden. For my own part, I felt the using of my Keats without protection of any kind to be beyond my means, but I gloried in this extravagance. It seemed rich to be thus hand and glove with the book: to touch it when and where I would, and as much as ever I liked: to feel assured that even with free using and free lending it would outlast my short stay here, as the blossoms of the roses in a friend’s hedge outlast your summer visit. Was it not fine, did it not strike a chord of kingly generosity, to be able to say to a friend, “Here is my copy of Keats. Take it, use it, read it. There is plenty of it for you and me”? I would rather have the lending of my Keats than the bidding to a banquet.
So it fell out that my favourite went more among my friends than ever, and accumulated at a usurious rate all manner of marks and stains, and defacements, and dog-ears, and other unworded comments, as well as verbal comments expressed in pencil and ink. It is true that a rolling stone gathers no moss, but a rolling snowball gathers more snow, and moss and snow are of about equal value. Oliver Wendell Holmes says, if I may trust my memory, that only three things improve with years: violins, wine, and meerschaum pipes. He loves books, and knows books as well as any man now living – almost as well as Charles Lamb did when he was with us; and yet Dr. Holmes does not think books worthy of being included in the list of things that time ripens. Is this ingratitude or carelessness, or does it mean that books dwell apart, and are no more to be classed with mere tangible things than angels, or mathematical points, or the winds of last winter? Is a book to him an ethereal record of a divine trance? an insubstantial painting of a splendid dream? the music of a yesterday fruitful in heavenly melody? the echo of a syren’s song haunting a sea shell?
Does not De Quincey tell us that, having lent some books to Coleridge, the poet not only wrote the lender’s name in them, but enriched the margins with observations and comments on the texts? Who would not give a tithe of the books he has for one volume so gloriously illuminated? I remember when I was a lad, among lads, a friend of ours picked up secondhand Cary’s Dante, in which was written the name of a poet still living, but who is almost unknown. We loved the living poet for his work, and when the buyer told us that the Dante bore not only the poet’s name, but numerous marginal notes and hints in his handwriting, we all looked upon the happy possessor with eyes of envious respect. The precious volume was shown to us, not in groups, for in gatherings there is peril of a profaning laugh, or an unsympathetic sneer. One by one we were handed the book, on still country roads, upon the tranquil heights of hills, where we were alone with the brown heather and the plover, or on some barren cliff above the summer sea. The familiar printed text sank into insignificance beside the blurred pencil lines. Any one might buy a fair uncut copy for a crown piece. The text was common property – “’twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands.” But here before us lay revealed the private workings of a poetic imagination, fired by contact with a master of the craft. To us this volume disclosed one of our heroes, clad in the homely garb of prose, speaking in his own everyday speech, and lifting up his voice in admiration, wonder, awe, to the colossal demi-god, in whose presence we had stood humiliated and afeard.
My Keats has suffered from many pipes, many thumbs, many pencils, many quills, many pockets. Not one stain, one 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 aureol? 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:
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 for ever strong, and denial for ever 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 human, 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 fared 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 feel and appreciate; but always in its presence I am weighed down by the consciousness that my deficiency in some attribute of 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 inflection 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 he cried out, “Stop! Don’t read the line 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.’ What’s the good of stopping 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
“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 grey-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
The ‘gloom and sorrow’ and the ‘goddess’ are abominably anticlimacteric.”
“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:
“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 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-Shakesperian 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 airs 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 men 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 ostracized.
As soon as my friend was somewhat calmed, and had cast himself down again and lit a pipe, I resumed my reading. He allowed me to proceed without interruption until I came to:
“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.”
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