Keats the Radical, or Where were those fields of mists and mellow fruitfulness?

At the end of March a blog appeared on the Oxford University Press website explaining the work behind a paper just  published in The Review of English Studies. The blog is entitled ‘A Keatsian Field trip’ and was written by Richard Turley, Jayne Archer and Howard Thomas, authors of the paper – ‘Keats, ‘To Autumn’ and the new men of Winchester’.

Despite the fact that it is hardly the time of year for considering the maturing sun or ripening fruit, such is the fame of the poem and its indelible place at the top of any list of great English poetry that the findings of this paper made national news.

Under such headlines as Ode to NCP? (typical of the Daily Fail) or Keats’ rural idyll now a car park, various British papers drew attention to the new possibilities raised by the authors of this paper – what was the inspiration for this great Ode ?

Previously considered as allegorical, commentators keen to highlight Keats’ interest in politics have generally assumed that his daily walk across  Winchester’s water meadows saw him take the fields around him as a representation of those recently trampled under the Peterloo Massacre. Or they were seen to symbolise the general state of British agriculture in the first twenty years of a century that was to see such a radical shift from agrarian economy to urban sprawl and financial speculation.

However, the academics responsible for this latest paper have pointed out that as the water meadows were grazed by cattle at that time (1819) it was unlikely that they were the inspiration for the ‘stubble-plains’. So despite the well-established tourist trail along the meadows that now draws poetry enthusiasts to Winchester it is more likely that they should be pointed to St Giles Hill, which Keats told his sister Fanny he had recently climbed. From there he would have seen the harvest being gathered by the local agricultural labourers and seen a view resplendent with autumn fruits and flowers.

In addition to the more natural viewpoint, the fact that the city-facing slopes  of St Giles had recently been bought for corn by the wealthy banker Nicholas Waller reinforces the view that Keats used the poem to express his radical sympathies. Waller was at that time buying up land to take advantage of inflated bread prices and those bringing in the grain would soon be unable to afford the bread made with it. At this time a national debate was raging about fair wages and those working the land were increasingly impoverished. The Keats I read would not have written this poem purely as a depiction of a rural idyll that had long ceased to exist. He recognised exploitation, greed and the idleness of the rich and highlighted it.

It is wonderful to think that academics still see so much in Keats’ work relevent to life in the 21st century and the paper is certainly interesting. Some years ago I read Nicholas Roe’s ‘John Keats and the Culture of Dissent’ which convinced me that far from being the unworldly and fey romantic poet of myth, Keats was always keen to unsettle his reader, incorporating imagery that responded to contemporary events. He was educated at Clarke’s School in Enfield, known to have its own dissenting culture and the books and periodicals he read there and the company he kept ensured he was fully engaged in the world around him, with all its injustices. This is the Keats whose work I love.

I am not entirely convinced that St Giles Hill was the sole influence on the poem as this paper suggests. Keats enjoyed his time in Winchester where, he said in a letter ‘the air is worth sixpence a pint’. The atmosphere of the water meadows certainly calmed him and the language of the Ode is rich and sensual, regardless of the viewpoint – it is far  more likely that his whole stay in the town influenced the work rather than one walk up one hill. It is also the culmination of what is known as Keats’ ‘Living Year’, a year in which his development as a poet matured so rapidly that the bulk of his most famous and admired work was written in the space of the fourteen months up to this autumn in Hampshire. It is one of the greatest poems in the English language and, sadly, not one of the articles I saw in the national press printed the actual poem in full. I have reproduced it below. Read it aloud and relish each word. It sends shivers down the spine.

I am also not sure that this story would have ‘garnered’ (I’m sorry but the punning is contagious…) quite so much interest had it not been for the fact that St Giles Hill is now under the Chesil multi-storey car park. It is certainly a hideous building but its relevance is over-played in the press. Nowhere in England is exactly the same as it was almost two hundred years ago. As a poetry pilgrim all you can do is follow in the great man’s footsteps and interpret the scenes for yourself. In fact, isn’t it more interesting to make the contrasts and recognise the similarities?

Rich bankers, it seems, are an eternal truth.

To Autumn

by John Keats

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.

II.

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 head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

II.

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

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2 Responses to Keats the Radical, or Where were those fields of mists and mellow fruitfulness?

  1. sonofwalt says:

    I do love this poem, and even more now that you bring to mind the political possibilities. I think it’s the only other Keats poem I have read on my channel. I need to fix that.

  2. keatsbabe says:

    Yes – you do! How about ‘To Sleep’? Not his most famous but some wonderful phrases to say out loud…

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