The Critic and John Keats

By Robert Pinsky on 4.13.09

Many people have memorized this poem. The three stanzas audibly, all but palpably create the feeling of time that is nearly arrested, yet passing, however imperceptibly, as the year’s cycle trembles on a warm autumn day: “the last oozings hours by hours.”

Readers who are impressed by literary criticism, and who admire “Ode to Autumn” and “Ode to a Nightingale” might do well to consider the writing of a quite clever critic named John Wilson Croker.

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Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
      Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
      With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
      And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
          To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
      With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
          For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
      Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
      Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
      Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
          Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
      Steady thy laden hook across a brook;
      Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
          Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?
      Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
      And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
      Among the river sallows, borne aloft
          Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
      Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
      The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
          And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Writing in The Quarterly Review of April 1818, Croker reviewed Keats’ first book, Endymion. He detected the influence of Leigh Hunt, who had befriended Keats. Croker, a perceptive and persuasive writer, said among other things:

[Mr Keats] is a copyist of Mr. Hunt; but he is more unintelligible, almost as rugged, twice as diffuse, and ten times more tiresome and absurd than his prototype, who, though he impudently presumed to seat himself in the chair of criticism, and to measure his own poetry by his own standard, yet generally had a meaning. But Mr. Keats had advanced no dogmas which he was bound to support by examples: his nonsense therefore is quite gratutitous; he writes it for its own sake…

This is intelligent, and Endymion is imperfect. Croker’s misfortune is that he was writing about John Keats. (Should we assume that the criticism of poetry has made great advances since those days?)

topics: Essential Pleasures