But the simple pleasure in colours and shapes grows less in his later poems. It becomes overcast. His great poems have the intensity and sorrow of a farewell.
It would be absurd, however, to paint Keats as a man without vitality, without pugnacity, without merriment. His brother declared that “John was the very soul of manliness and courage, and as much like the Holy Ghost as Johnny Keats”—the Johnny Keats who had allowed himself to be “snuffed out by an article.” As a schoolboy he had been fond of fighting, and as a man he had his share of militancy. He had a quite healthy sense of humour, too—not a subtle sense, but at least sufficient to enable him to regard his work playfully at times, as when he commented on an early version of La Belle Dame sans Merci containing the lines:—
And there I shut her wild,
With kisses four.
“Why four kisses?” he writes to his brother:—
Why four kisses—you will say—why four? Because I wish to restrain the headlong impetuosity of my Muse—she would have fain said “score” without hurting the rhyme—but we must temper the imagination, as the critics say, with judgment. I was obliged to choose an even number, that both eyes might have fair play, and to speak truly I think two apiece quite sufficient. Suppose I had said seven, there would have been three and-a-half apiece—a very awkward affair, and well got out of on my side.
That was written nearly a year after the famous Quarterly article on Endymion, in which the reviewer had so severely taken to task “Mr. Keats (if that be his real name, for we almost doubt that any man in his senses would put his real name to such a rhapsody).” It suggests that Keats retained at least a certain share of good spirits, in spite of the Quarterly and Fanny Brawne and the approach of death. His observation, too, was often that of a spirited common-sense realist rather than an aesthete, as in his first description of Fanny Brawne:—
She is about my height—with a fine style and countenance of the lengthened sort—she wants sentiment in every feature—she manages to make her hair look well—her nostrils are fine—though a little painful—her mouth is bad and good—her profile is better than her full face, which, indeed, is not full but pale and thin, without showing any bone—her shape is very graceful, and so are her movements—her arms are good, her hands bad-ish—her feet tolerable—she is not seventeen [nineteen?]—but she is ignorant monstrous in her behaviour, flying out in all directions, calling people such names—that I was forced lately to make use of the term minx; this is, I think, not from any innate vice but from a penchant she has of acting stylishly. I am, however, tired of such style, and shall decline any more of it.
Yet before many months he was writing to the “minx,” “I will imagine you Venus to-night, and pray, pray, pray, pray to your star like a heathen.” Certain it is, as I have already said, that it was after his meeting with Fanny Brawne that he grew, as in a night, into a great poet. Let us not then abuse Keats’s passion for her as vulgar. And let us not attempt to make up for this by ranking him with Shakespeare. He is great among the second, not among the first poets.