His mastery in choosing, adapting, and sometimes even creating, apt poetic words or phrases, is one of his special charms. Matthew Arnold says: “No one else in English poetry, save Shakespeare, has in expression quite the fascinating felicity of Keats.” Some of his descriptive adjectives and phrases, such as the “deep-damasked wings” of the tiger-moth, have been called “miniature poems.” In the eighty lines of the Ode to a Nightingale, we may note the “full-throated ease” of the nightingale’s song, the vintage cooled in the “deep-delved earth,” the “beaded bubbles winking at the brim” of the beaker “full of the warm South,” “the coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,” the sad Ruth “amid the alien corn,” and the “faery lands forlorn.”
A contemporary critic accused Keats of “spawning” new words, of converting verbs into nouns, of forming new verbs, and of making strange use of adjectives and adverbs. Some contemporaries might object to his “torched mines,” “flawblown sleet,” “liegeless air,” or even to the “calm-throated” thrush of the immortals. Modern lovers of poetry, however, think that he displayed additional proof of genius by enriching the vocabulary of poetry more than any other writer since Milton.
Keats was not, like Byron and Shelley, a reformer. He drew his first inspiration from Grecian mythology and the romantic world of Spenser, not from the French Revolution or the social unrest of his own day. It is, however, a mistake to say that he was untouched by the new human impulses. There is modern feeling in the following lines which introduce us to the two cruel brothers in Isabella:—
“...for them many a weary hand did
In torched mines and noisy factories.
* * * * *
For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
And went all naked to the hungry shark;
For them his ears gushed blood; for them in death
The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark
Lay full of darts.”
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century Matthew Arnold wrote of Keats: “He is with Shakespeare.” Andrew Bradley, a twentieth century professor of poetry in the University of Oxford, says: “Keats was of Shakespeare’s tribe.” These eminent critics do not mean that Keats had the breadth, the humor, the moral appeal of Shakespeare, but they do find in Keats much of the youthful Shakespeare’s lyrical power, mastery of expression, and intense love of the beautiful in life. When Keats said: “If a sparrow comes before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel,” he showed another Shakespearean quality in his power to enter into the life of other creatures. At first he wrote of the beautiful things that appealed to his senses or his fancies, but when he came to ask himself the question:—
“And can I ever bid these joys farewell?”