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XTENDING from 1795 to 1821, the life of
John Keats, brief as it was, covered part
of a period of great though somewhat pathetic interest in the history of the development of modern Europe. It may be described as the period of the ebb-flow in that tide of faith and hope which had reached its flood in the early years of the French revolution. The glorious outburst of eighty-nine had sent a thrill of new life through all the civilized nations of the world. Thought and feeling were everywhere freshened and intensified; a “conquering, new-born joy awoke,” bearing with it a sense of resuscitation and power; and the doctrinaire dream of perfectibility--the dream of the Condorcets and the Godwins-seemed on
the point of realization in the domain of actual fact. Behind the race lay the broken shackles of the past, with its tyrannies, errors, superstitions; and from the present, as from a Pisgahheight, could be seen stretching away into the hazy distance the paradise of man's desire, the true land of promise of which prophets had spoken and poets sung. Well indeed might Wordsworth exclaim of those rich years of buoyancy and aspiration:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
Now was it that both found, the meek and lofty,
But the world's opportunity went by; the promise was falsified and the prediction left unfulfilled. The morning-star of the revolution sank in a sea of blood, and from the chaos of French tumult rose at length, not the goddess of liberty, radiant and benign, but the sinister figure of the First Consul. Thus the mind of man sank back once more into the shallows. The generous ardor cooled down; the young enthusiasm died away. Frustrated hope changed into apathy, revolutionary faith into post-revolutionary skepticism and despair.
1 The Prelude, Book xi.
The moral exhaustion which followed the failure of the “proud hopes” of 1789, was, as we can now see clearly enough, an inevitable reaction after the intense and abnormal strain of the great European upheaval. Of such a condition of things the literature of the time, English and continental, became the faithful mouthpiece and expression. In France especially, strong voices gave utterance to the maladie du siècle—the sense of the emptiness, the futility, the worthlessness of human life and effort. Senancour—best known among ourselves to-day as the Obermann of Matthew Arnold, and for Sainte-Beuve the anti-typical René, Lamartine, and Chateaubriand -- the modern representative of Rousseau-may be taken, among many others, as characteristic exponents of the mood of mind thus engendered—the mood afterwards so powerfully portrayed and so remorselessly analyzed by Alfred de Musset in the opening chapter of his Confessions d'un Enfant du Siècle. Meanwhile, in England, though of course language and tone