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And on sweet St. Agnes' night,
2" The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold.”—Could he have selected an image more warm and comfortable in itself, and, therefore, better contradicted by the season? We feel the plump, feathery bird, in his nook, shivering in spite of his natural household warmth, and staring out at the strange weather. The hare cringing through the chill grass is very piteous, and the "silent flock" very patient; and how quiet and gentle, as well as wintry, are all these circumstances, and fit to open a quiet and gentle poem! The breath of the pilgrim, likened to pious incense," completes them, and is a simile in admirable "keeping," as the painters call it; that is to say, is thoroughly harmonious with itself and all that is going on. The breath of the pilgrim is visible, so is that of a censer; the censer, after its fashion, may be said to pray; and its breath, like the pilgrim's, ascends to heaven. Young students of poetry may, in this image alone, see what imagination is, under one of its most poetical forms, and how thoroughly it "tells." There is no part of it unfitting. It is not applicable in one point, and the reverse in another.
Past the sweet Virgin's picture," &c.—What a complete feeling of winter-time is in this stanza, together with an intimation of those Catholic elegances, of which we are to have more in the poem !
4" To think how they may ache," &c.—The germ of the thought, or something like it, is in Dante, where he speaks of the figures that perform the part of sustaining columns in architecture. Keats had read Dante in Mr. Cary's translation, for which he had a great respect. He began to read him afterwards in Italian, which language he was mastering with surprising quickness. A friend of ours has a copy of Ariosto containing admiring marks of his pen. But the same thought may have struck one poet as well as another. Perhaps there are few that have not felt something like it on seeing the figures upon tombs. Here, however, for the first time, we believe, in English poetry, it is expressed, and with what feeling and elegance! Most wintry
as well as penitential is the word "aching" in "icy hoods and mails ;" and most felicitous the introduction of the Catholic idea in the word "purgatorial." The very color of the rails is made to assume a meaning, and to shadow forth the gloom of the punishment—
Imprisoned in black purgatorial rails.
5" Flattered to tears."-This "flattered" is exquisite. A true poet is by nature a metaphysician; far greater in general than metaphysicians professed. He feels instinctively what the others get at by long searching. In this word " flattered" is the whole theory of the secret of tears; which are the tributes, more or less worthy, of self-pity to self-love. Whenever we shed tears, we take pity on ourselves; and we feel, if we do not consciously say so, that we deserve to have the pity taken. In many cases, the pity is just, and the self-love not to be construed unhandsomely. In many others it is the reverse; and this is the reason why selfish people are so often found among the tear-shedders, and why they seem never to shed them for others. They imagine themselves in the situation of others, as indeed the most generous must, before they can sympathize; but the generous console as well as weep. Selfish tears are niggardly of everything but themselves.
"Flattered to tears." Yes, the poor old man was moved, by the sweet music, to think that so sweet a thing was intended for his comfort, as well as for others. He felt that the mysterious kindness of Heaven did not omit even his poor, old, sorry case, in its numerous workings and visitations; and, as he wished to live longer, he began to think that his wish was to be attended to. He had begun to think how much he had suffered-how much he had suffered wrongly and mysteriously--and how much better a man he was, with all his sins, than fate seemed to have taken him for. Hence he found himself deserving of tears and self-pity, and he shed them, and felt soothed by his poor, old, loving self. Not undeservedly either; for he was a painstaking pilgrim, aged, patient, and humble, and willingly suffered cold and toil for the sake of something better than he
could otherwise deserve; and so the pity is not exclusively on his own side: we pity him, too, and would fain see him out of that cold chapel, gathered into a warmer place than the grave. But it was not to be. We must therefore console ourselves in knowing, that this icy endurance of his was the last, and that he soon found himself at the sunny gate of heaven.
“A little moonlight room.”—The poet does not make his “little moonlight room" comfortable, observe. The high taste of the exordium is kept up. All is still wintry. There is to be no comfort in the poem, but what is given by love. to the cold walls.
All else may be left
7" Tears."-He almost shed tears of sympathy, to think how his treasure is exposed to the cold; and of delight and pride, to think of her sleeping beauty, and her love for himself. This passage," asleep in lap of legends old," is in the highest imaginative taste, fusing together the imaginative and the spiritual, the remote and the near. Madeline is asleep in her bed; but she is also asleep in accordance with the legends of the season: and therefore the bed becomes their lap as well as sleep's. The poet does not critically think of all this; he feels it: and thus should other young poets draw upon the prominent points of their feelings upon a subject, sucking the essence out of them into analogous words, instead of beating about the bush for thoughts, and, perhaps, getting clever ones, but not thoroughly pertinent, not wanted, not the best. Such, at least, is the difference between the truest poetry and the degrees beneath it.
8 Since Merlin paid his demon all the monstrous debt.
What he means by Merlin's "monstrous debt," I cannot say. Merlin, the famous enchanter, obtained King Arthur his interview with the fair Iogerne; but though the son of a devil, and conversant with the race, I am aware of no debt that he owed them. Did Keats suppose that he had sold himself, like " Faustus ?"
9 Its little smoke in pallid moonshine died.
This is a verse in .he taste of Chaucer, full of minute
truth. The smoke of the wax-taper seems almost as ethereal and fair as the moonlight, and both suit each other and the heroine. But what a lovely line is the seventh about the heart,
Paining with eloquence her balmy side!
And the nightingale! how touching the simile! the heart a "tongueless nightingale," dying in the bed of the bosom. What thorough sweetness, and perfection of lovely imagery! How one delicacy is heaped upon another! But for a burst of richness, noiseless, colored, suddenly enriching the moonlight, as if a door of heaven were opened, read the stanza that follows.
10 A shielded scutcheon blush'd with blood of queens and kings.
Could all the pomp and graces of aristocracy, with Titian's and Raphael's aid to boot, go beyond the rich religion of this picture, with its "twilight saints," and its scutcheons, "blushing with the blood of queens ?"
11"Save wings for heaven."-The lovely and innocent creature, thus praying under the gorgeous painted window, completes the exceeding and unique beauty of this picture,-one that will for ever stand by itself in poetry, as an addition to the stock. It would have struck a glow on the face of Shakspeare himself. He might have put Imogen or Ophelia under such a shrine. How proper as well as pretty the heraldic term gules, considering the occasion. "Red" would not have been a fiftieth part as good. And with what elegant luxury he touches the "silver cross" with "amethyst," and the fair human hand with " rosecolor," the kin of their carnation! The lover's growing "faint" is one of the few inequalities which are to be found in the latter productions of this great but young and over-sensitive poet. He had, at the time of his writing this, the seeds of a mortal illness in him, and he doubtless wrote as he had felt, for he was also deeply in love; and extreme sensibility struggled in him with a great understanding.
12" Unclasps her warmed jewels."-How true and cordial the warmed jewels, and what matter of fact also, made elegant, in
the rustling downward of the attire; and the mixture of dress and undress, and of the dishevelled hair, likened to a "mermaid in sea-weed!" But the next stanza is perhaps the most exquisite in the poem."
13" As though a rose had shut."-Can the beautiful go beyond this? I never saw it. And how the imagery rises! flown like a thought-blissfully haven'd-clasp'd like a missal in a land of Pagans that is to say, where Christian prayer-books must not be seen, and are, therefore, doubly cherished for the danger. And then, although nothing can surpass the preciousness of this idea, is the idea of the beautiful, crowning all
Blinded alike from sunshine and from rain,
As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again.
Thus it is that poetry, in its intense sympathy with creation, may be said to create anew, rendering its words more impressive than the objects they speak of, and individually more lasting; the spiritual perpetuity putting them on a level (not to speak it profanely) with the fugitive compound.
14" Lucent syrups tinct with cinnamon."-Here is delicate modulation, and super-refined epicurean nicety!
Lucent syrups tinct with cinnamon;
make us read the line delicately, and at the tip-end, as it were, of one's tongue.
15" Beyond a mortal man.”—Madeline is half awake, and Porphyro reassures her, with loving, kind looks, and an affectionate embrace.
16" Heart-shap'd and vermeil-dyed."-With what a pretty wilful conceit the costume of the poem is kept up in this line about the shield! The poet knew when to introduce apparent trifles forbidden to those who are void of real passion, and who, feeling nothing intensely, can intensify nothing.
17" Carpets rose."-This is a slip of the memory, for there were hardly carpets in those days. But the truth of the painting makes amends, as in the unchronological pictures of old masters.