“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness”
When the English poet John Keats wrote the epic poem “Endymion” (1818), little was he aware of the scathing criticism he would receive for attempting to tell the story of the shepherd beloved by the moon goddess Selene. He had been, of course, exposed to harsh reviews of his works from the leading critics of the time—which he had somewhat successfully weathered—yet the absolute bloodbath that followed this particular poem’s publication was severe enough to prompt Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley to declare that the reviews had, for all intent and purposes, killed Keats.
It would be wrong to assume that the statement uttered by the two leading poets is entirely correct. Keats died of tuberculosis, yet there is no denying that he suffered a devastating emotional blow at the hands of John Wilson Croker of The Quarterly Review and John Gibson Lockhart of Blackwood’s Magazine.
At the time, it was rather a staple of critics to be overtly venomous towards men with literary pretensions. Indeed, even such figures as Byron were ridiculed and sharply criticized at one point or another. And yet while it is true that Byron and Keats, as well as Shelley, shared an extreme sensitivity, not all responded in the same manner towards their critics. While Byron’s temperament drove him to compose what would eventually be regarded as his first major satire, “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers”, Keats could hardly muster the titanic strength of a person like Byron, in no small part due to the ongoing torment he was enduring at the time over his frustrated love towards Fanny Brawne, and the misery that accompanied illness and poverty.
As for Mr. Croker and Mr. Gibson, they did not commit a crime by penning what could very well be regarded as personal attacks on Keats. Both enjoyed broad liberties that allowed them to publish whatever they deemed fit for their respective publications. The crime they did commit, though, was to ignore the simplest of rules when reviewing the works of an author. As former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky wrote in a July 21, 2011 article for Slate, Mr. Croker and Mr. Gibson are unquestionably guilty of not telling: a) what the book is about; b) what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about; c) what the reviewer thinks about what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.
Indeed, Mr. Crocker, an Irish wit of the first order, seems to be wholly preoccupied with tarnishing Keats’ image and reputation as much as Mr. Gibson, and although the former succeeds in doing so more so than the latter, both neglect to inform the reader as to what, precisely, is the subject matter being dealt by the poet and, furthermore, what his intentions are and the message he is trying to convey.
Naturally, this produces the sort of entertaining criticism that pedants and mean-spirited people will revel in. Yet, the conscientious reader will find this inherent malice from the part of the critics to be as foul as the most uninspired passages found in Keats’ poem. The difference lays in the fact that Keats seeks not to produce this effect in order to captivate his audience by way of a conscious effort to shock and titillate them, while his critics, on the other hand, find, quite unremarkably, that it is not at all appalling to drag a poet through the gallows in order to raise their names, and their reputations, upwards and on to posterity.
By: Andrés Ordorica
Image: Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1797-1798), “Vuelo de brujas”