Chapter 2: a Keats manuscript
“Touch it,” said Leigh Hunt
when he showed Bayard Taylor
a lock of brown silky hair, “and you will have touched Milton
The magic of the lock of hair is akin to that recognized by nomadic and untamed races in anything that has been worn close to the person of a great or fortunate being.
, much reverenced by the gypsies, whose language he speaks and whose lore he knows better than they know it, had a knife about his person which was supposed by them to secure the granting of any request if held in the hand.
When he gave it away, it was like the transfer of fairy power to the happy recipient.
The same lucky spell is attributed to a piece from the bride's garter, in Normandy
, or to pins filched from her dress, in Sussex
For those more cultivated, the charm of this transmitted personality is best embodied
in autographs, and the more unstudied and unpremeditated the better.
In the case of a poet, nothing can be compared with the interest inspired by the first draft of a poem, with its successive amendments — the path by which his thought attained its final and perfect utterance.
, it is reported, was very indignant with those who bore away from his study certain rough drafts of poems, justly holding that the world had no right to any but the completed form.
Yet this is what, as students of poetry, we all instinctively wish to do. Rightly or wrongly, we long to trace the successive steps.
To some extent, the same opportunity is given in successive editions of the printed work, but here the study is not so much of changes in the poet's own mind as of those produced by the criticisms, often dull or ignorant, of his readers; those especially who fail to catch a poet's very finest thought, and persuade him to dilute it a little for their satisfaction.
When I pointed out to Browning
some rather unfortunate alterations in his later editions, and charged him with having made them to accommodate stupid people, he admitted the charge and promised to alter them back again, although, of course, he never did. But the changes in an author's manuscript almost
always come either from his own finer perception and steady advance toward the precise conveyance of his own thought, or else from the aid he receives in this from some immediate friend or adviser-most likely a woman — who is in close sympathy with his own mood.
The charm is greatest, of course, in seeing and studying and touching the actual page, just as it is. For this a photograph is the best substitute, since it preserves the original for the eye, as does the phonograph for the ear. Even with the aid of photography only, there is as much difference between the final corrected shape and the page showing the gradual changes as between the graceful yacht lying in harbor, anchored, motionless, with sails furled, and the same yacht as a winged creature, gliding into port.
Let us now see, by actual comparison, how one of Keats
's yachts came in.
There lies before me a photograph of the first two stanzas of Keats
's “Ode on Melancholy” as they stood when first written.
The manuscript page containing them was given to John Howard Payne
by George Keats
, the poet's brother, who lived for many years at Louisville, Kentucky
, and died there; but it now belongs to Mr. R. S. Chilton
States Consul at Goderich, Ontario
, who has kindly given me a photograph of it. The verses are in Keats
's well-known and delicate handwriting, and exhibit a series of erasures and substitutions which are now most interesting, inasmuch as the changes in each instance enrich greatly the value of the word-painting.
To begin with, the title varies slightly from that now adopted, and reads simply “On Melancholy,” to which the word “Ode” is now prefixed by the printers.
In the second line, where he had half written “Henbane” for the material of his incantation, he blots it out and puts “Wolfsbane,” instantly abandoning the tamer suggestion and bringing in all the wildness and the superstition that have gathered for years around the Loupgarou and the Wehrwolf.
This is plainly no amendment suggested afterward by another person, but is due unmistakably to the quick action of his own mind.
There is no other change until the end of the first stanza, where the last two lines were originally written thus:
For shade to shade will come too heavily
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
It is noticeable that he originally wrote “down” for “drown,” and, in afterward inserting
the r, put it in the wrong place-after the o
, instead of before it. This was a slip of the pen only; but it was that word “heavily” which cost him a struggle.
The words “too heavily” were next crossed out, and under them written “too sleepily” ; then this last word was again erased, and the word “drowsily” was finally substituted — the only expression in the English
language, perhaps, which could have precisely indicated the exact shade of debilitating languor he meant.
In the other stanza, it is noticeable that he spells “melancholy,” through heedlessness, “melanancholy,” which gives a curious effect of prolonging and deepening the incantation; and this error he does not discover or correct.
In the same way he spells “fit” “fitt,” having perhaps in mind the “fytte” of the earlier poets.
These are trifles, but when he alters the line, which originally stood
“But when the melancholy fit shall come,” and for “come” substitutes “fall,” we see at once, besides the merit of the soft alliteration, that he gives more of the effect of doom and suddenness.
“Come” was clearly too businesslike.
Afterward, instead of
“Then feed thy sorrow on a morning rose,”
he substitutes for “feed” the inexpressibly more effective word “glut,” which gives at once the exhaustive sense of wealth belonging so often to Keats
's poetry; and seems to match the full ecstasy of color and shape and fragrance that a morning rose may hold.
Finally, in the line which originally stood
Or on the rainbow of the dashing wave,
he strikes out the rather trite epithet “dashing” and substitutes the stronger phrase “salt-sand wave,” which is peculiar to him.
All these changes are happily accepted in the common editions of Keats
; but these editions make two errors that are corrected by this manuscript and should henceforth be abandoned.
In the line usually printed
“Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be,” the autograph text gives “or” in place of the second “nor,” a change consonant with the best usage; and in the line
“And hides the green hill in an April shroud,” the middle word is clearly not “hill,” but “hills.”
This is a distinct improvement, both because it broadens the landscape and because it averts the jangle of the closing
with the final words “fall” and “all” in previous lines.
It is a fortunate thing that, in the uncertain destiny of all literary manuscripts, this characteristic document should have been preserved for us. It will be remembered that Keats
himself once wrote in a letter that his fondest prayer, next to that for the health of his brother Tom, would be that some child of his brother George “should be the first American poet.”
This letter, printed by Milnes
, was written Oct. 29, 1818.
died about 1851, and his youngest daughter, Isabel
, who was thought greatly to resemble her uncle John, both in looks and genius, died sadly at the age of seventeen.
It is pleasant to think that we have, through the care exercised by this Americanized brother, an opportunity of coming into close touch with the mental processes of that rare genius which first imparted something like actual color to English words.
To be brought thus near to Keats
suggests that poem by Browning
where he compares a moment's interview with one who had seen Shelley
to picking up an eagle's feather on a lonely heath.