General Characteristics.—Shelley’s is the purest, the most hopeful, and the noblest voice of the Revolution. Wordsworth and Coleridge lost their faith and became Tories, and Byron was a selfish, lawless creature; but Shelley had the martyr spirit of sacrifice, and he trusted to the end in the wild hopes of the revolutionary enthusiasts. His Queen Mab, Revolt of Islam, Ode to Liberty, Ode to Naples, and, above all, his Prometheus Unbound, are some of the works inspired by a trust in the ideal democracy which was to be based on universal love and the brotherhood of man. This faith gives a bounding elasticity and buoyancy to Shelley’s thought, but also tinges it with that disgust for the old, that defiance of restraint, and that boyish disregard for experience which mark a time of revolt.
The other subject that Shelley treats most frequently in his verse is ideal beauty. He yearned all his life for some form beautiful enough to satisfy the aspirations of his soul. Alastor, Epipsychidion, The Witch of Atlas, and Prometheus Unbound, all breathe this insatiate craving for that “Spirit of Beauty,” that “awful Loveliness.”
Many of his efforts to describe in verse this democracy and this ideal beauty are impalpable and obscure. It is difficult to clothe such shadowy abstractions in clear, simple form. He is occasionally vague because his thoughts seem to have emerged only partially from the cloud lands that gave them birth. At other times, his vagueness resembles Plato’s because it is inherent in the subject matter. Like Byron, Shelley is sometimes careless in the construction and revision of his verse. We shall, however, search in vain for these faults in Shelley’s greatest lyrics. He is one of the supreme lyrical geniuses in the language. Of all the lyric poets of England, he is the greatest master of an ethereal, evanescent, phantomlike beauty.
[Illustration: JOHN KEATS. From the painting by Hilton, National Portrait Gallery.]
Life.—John Keats, the son of a keeper of a large livery stable, a man “fine in common sense and native respectability,” was born in Moorfields, London, in 1795. He attended school at Enfield, where he was a prize scholar. He took special pleasure in studying Grecian mythology, the influence of which is so apparent in his poetry. While at school, he also voluntarily wrote a translation of much of Vergil’s AEneid. It would seem as if he had also been attracted to Shakespeare; for Keats is credited with expressing to a young playmate the opinion that no one, if alone in the house, would dare read Macbeth at two in the morning.
When Keats was left an orphan in his fifteenth year, he was taken from school and apprenticed to a surgeon at Edmonton, near London.