I published this blog post last year and it is still one of those viewed regularly. Since I first wrote it I have had some interesting discussions with people who have examined this subject from different perspectives. I clearly have many friends who are, or long to be, creative; in poetry, prose, music, photography and painting. Many also find a creative outlet in cookery. Some of these same people have experienced significant mental health issues and I assumed they would connect the two. After all, the creative arts are regularly used, rightly, as therapy.
Interestingly, not all had that view, and occasionally there was a slight sense of irritation. ‘I have mental health issues – why then do I not feel the need to have a creative outlet? Am I missing something if I would rather walk the dog to lift my mood?’ Or – ‘I am creative, therefore is my emotional health more fragile?’
Perhaps what the subject does show is that, as with any debilitating ill health, mental health is a deeply personal experience that people deal with in very different ways. A ‘straw poll’ indicates that the majority of people asked feel there is a connection, but it is obviously not an inevitable one. Therefore, as I have mentioned in my discussions on the subject of breast cancer, there is no point in generalising or suggesting that we are some way personally responsible if illness, physical or mental, strikes. Life may just be random.
I would also like to thank those that took the time to discuss their views on Keats own emotional state. It is a fascinating area of work.
In the mid 1970’s, when I was in my early teens, Blue Peter was a comfy extension of school. Presenters were nicer, funnier versions of teachers and whereas today fast-moving noisy entertainment is to the fore, in my youth the programme was, frankly, educational.
So educational in fact that a special series of programmes devoted to one subject were broadcast as ‘Blue Peter Special Assignments’. One series focused on cities I believe, another on famous people. But the series I remember best was on Historic Homes, and was presented by Valerie Singleton. It wasn’t an ‘Escape to the Country’ type feature, but documentaries on the homes of famous people. The only one I remember is the one that has led to a life long passion for poetry and a love for a dead poet that has lasted more than 30 years. The ‘Historic House’ was Wentworth Place in Hampstead and the poet Blue Peter devoted a whole programme to was John Keats.
This is not a post about John Keats himself. I am considering starting another blog along the lines of those fabulous pages published by Madame Guillotine, Jane Travers, or The Virtual Victorian. It is more a reminiscence, an exercise in looking back at the beginnings of a relationship that has turned out to be a powerful influence on my life . It is also interesting to think about how influenced I have been by one short programme I watched as a child, and wonder at the images my children have absorbed over the years. And significantly I wanted to consider how far I made a connection with Keats as a person; because although his genius far surpasses anything I could aspire to, and he experienced horrors I have no knowledge of, perhaps I felt he responded to the world in a way that I myself have done as I have grown up.
I remember sitting in front of the television listening to Valerie Singleton describe the life of one of our very greatest literary figures, entranced at her description of his devotion to his brothers, one of whom he nursed all through the final stages of TB, the love this modest young man (he died of TB himself aged 25) inspired in his friends and his passion for Fanny Brawne. I can still see myself sitting there watching the actor playing Keats walking the lanes of Hampstead in the freezing cold, his back to the camera. The programme was probably only 20 minutes long but I was hooked. On our next family holiday to Devon I sought out a bookshop in Totnes and spent all my holiday money on the Everyman Library book of Keats’ poems, a volume which remains by my bedside to this day, acting as a talisman. I fell in love with such phrases as ‘and seal the hushed casket of my soul’ (To Sleep) and ‘O for an age so shelter’d from annoy/that I may never know how change the moons/Or hear the voice of busy common-sense (Ode on Indolence). As I have read more, and more deeply, I have gained understanding and comfort. Keats has been with me though some difficult times.
I have never thought this attachment in any way weird – after all there are some obsessed with the memory of Elvis – but I was teased about it by my siblings in my teens and still get the occasional remark, although they should know better now that they know this study has been rather more than a teenage fad. There are certainly many people all over the world who feel the same way, and last year the film ‘Bright Star’ directed by the brilliant Jane Campion was released, introducing Keats and Fanny Brawne to a wider audience. It is terrific, and I would recommend it to anyone.
When I met my husband, he quickly became aware that if there weren’t the now almost proverbial ‘three people in this marriage’, there were at the very least an astonishing amount of books on this one man, as well as studies of early 19th century medicine (Keats trained at Guy’s Hospital before giving up medicine for poetry) and biographies of key literary figures of the times. Love him, for a man who rarely read anything before he met me, he has been amazingly supportive of my collection; he has hunted the shelves of many a second-hand book shop on my behalf.
Interestingly, as you read in more detail the story of Keats’ struggle with his ambitions, his fervour, his bursts of astonishing productivity in the year that produced amongst other great work the Ode to A Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn (which has even been quoted in The Simpsons…) and Ode to Autumn, you can see evidence of deep depression, anxiety and outbursts that might now attract a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. His symptoms were exacerbated by the tuberculosis, but from his childhood onwards there were incidents where the ferocity of his reaction surprised his family and friends.
This thought has encouraged me to read more about the great artists in many fields who were clearly affected by mental illness, even if it was undiagnosed during their lifetime. There was a fabulous article in The Independent last year entitled ‘Creative minds: the links between mental illness and creativity’ which looked at talent as varied as Salvador Dali, Spike Milligan, Beach Boy Brian Wilson and Einstein. It suggests that to be mildly manic-depressive or schizophrenic ‘brings a flexibility of thought, an openness, and risk-taking behaviour’ which can result in comedy, poetry, music, art – any intellectual activity really – of the best kind. Think Tchaikovsky, Dickens, Jackson Pollack, Richard Ashcroft, Kurt Cobain, Stephen Fry… the list runs into hundreds of well-known figures.
I have met, and am friends with, many wonderful, creative people who have experienced significant issues with their mental health. I too long to be able to harness my highs and lows in a way that produces work that I can be proud of. So that unlike John Keats, who had no real confidence that he would be remembered, I can feel that when I am gone (a good long time on from now I hope) I leave behind work I can be proud of, and do not feel my name has been ‘writ in water’.