April 21st 2013 – On main blog: Let’s focus on the words: Peter, Tony and a portrait of Keats
Looking at the ‘new’ portrait of Keats to go on sale in London in the summer of 2013 and considering why it is so important to have an image of a writer in our minds…
February 14th 2013- On main blog: Love poems you wish you had written #5 - John Keats ‘Bright Star’
Part of a series of poems for Valentine’s Day, one of Keats’ most famous poems, with a reading by actor Tom Hiddleston
September 14 – On main blog: Sex lurks in the shadows of the Pre-Raphaelites – phallic symbols in Isabella by Millais
A look at Millais’s painting inspired by ‘Isabella, or the Pot of Basil’ in light of a paper suggesting that a certain symbol used by the artist cannot be ignored once seen….
August 15th – New on my main blog: To be ‘a friend of Keats’ – a very Romantic circle
An introduction to a forthcoming series of posts on Keats’ wide and loyal circle of friends.
July 9th 2012 – Post on my main blog: Bronze bulls on pianos, or ‘On first Looking into Chapman’s Homer’
A discussion of the bronze bulls by New Zealand artist Michael Parekowhai inspired by On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.
June 18th 2012 – Post on my main blog: A poetic inspiration – lines that mean the world to us
I discuss poems that have buoyed me up or brought me back to the life I’m living and encouraged me to keep believing that I can do it – whatever ‘it’ may be. Includes ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’…
April 16th 2012 - New post on my main blog: Keats the Radical, or Where were those fields of mists and mellow fruitfulness?
A discussion about a paper on the inspiration for Ode to Autumn published in The Review of English Studies resulting in national headlines such as Ode to NCP? or Keats’ rural idyll now a car park…
April 2012 – Keatsian News:
The prestigious Keats-Shelley Prize, a competition for essays and poems on Romantic themes, is open for entries to the 2012 competition until the end of June.
The prizes are judged by a panel of judges who this year will be chaired by Colin Thubron CBE, award winning travel writer and current President of the Royal Society of Literature.
This year poems (of 40 lines or less) should be on the theme of ‘Gold’ and essays with a 3,000 word limit) should centre on the work and lives of the Romantics and their circles.
The winner’s work is published and prize money totals £3,000.
Although past winners have included some famous contemporary scholars, authors and poets, such as Simon Armitage it is not necessary to be previously published or known in the field. A number of undergraduates have won the essay prize in the past with work that is interesting and very accessible to the Romantic reader.
I have been tempted to enter on a number of occasions but have always been that little bit too cowardly to ‘go for it’. Perhaps this year…..
Full details are available on the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association website www.keats-shelley.com.
The closing date for entries is 30th June 2012 and the winners notified in August. An awards ceremony is held in October where last year was then Chair of judges, novelist Dame Penelope Lively.
Did you know…?
….that the website www.John-Keats.com includes a really useful forum where you can post questions and thoughts about John Keats and the Romantic period? Many on the forum are very knowledgeable and can answer questions you might have in your studies and others are Keats enthusiasts who just like to talk about his poetry, writing and life.
Click on the link link above to take you to the site home page and the forum is easily visible from there.
24th February 2012 - New post on my main blog: ‘He is gone…’ Joseph Severn on the death of John Keats
On the anniversary of the first day after the death of John Keats from TB in 1821, a tribute to the young artist Joseph Severn, who accompanied Keats to Rome and was his devoted friend and nurse in his final days.
16th February 2012 – New post on my main blog: The Keats Brothers – The Life of John & George by Denise Gigante
A review of a fascinating book published in the autumn of 2011, which examines the life of John Keats’s brother George and the impact his move to America had on the poet.
January 22nd 2012 – New post on my main blog September 1818: So begins the miracle of Keats’ ‘Living Year’.
Looking at the incredible work Keats produced between late 1818 and much of 1819. In just fourteen months he wrote much of his greatest poetry. What inspired him?
December 28th 2011 - New post on my main blog: ‘When I have fears…’ – John Keats on self-doubt
The sonnet ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’ meditates on a writer’s tendency to self-doubt; fearing that there is never enough time to write or experience everything we want or need to.
For me, one the greatest disappointments I experience is when a person I love and respect attributes any period in which I am experiencing a prolonged sense of melancholy to my predisposition to ‘think too much’. I can sense their meaning – they mean dwelling on things, particularly those things I cannot change. However, the idea that it is possible to ‘over think’ seems to prevail. So I offer you Keats’ view on the matter. To me he places the ability to ‘think’ alongside our need to understand the meaning in our lives; to understand and use those developing thought processes and experiences – both enjoyable and sorrowful – to know what it is to be truly human.
Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, 3rd May 1818
Well – I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being yet shut upon me – The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think – We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle – within us – we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the heart and nature of Man – of convincing ones nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression – whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought become gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open – but all dark – all leading to dark passages – We see not the ballance of good and evil. We are in a Mist – We are now in that state – We feel the “burden of the Mystery,” To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive when he wrote ‘Tintern Abbey’ and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark Passages. Now if we live, and go on thinking, we too shall explore them.
I am proud to be a thinker, whatever the cost.
October 1st 2011 New post on my main blog - Advice to writers? John Keats on dealing with distractions
In which John Keats offers some sage advice to writers on a cure for listlessness and lethargy.
September 9th 2011 – new post on my main blog On my way to Ambleside: Stock Ghyll Force with John Keats
On the eve of a holiday in the Lake District I share John Keats’ thoughts on the beauty of nature as he views Stock Ghyll Force in Ambleside.
September 3rd 2011 – New post on my main blog Contemporising Keats – It isn’t all about the words….
Looks at how the tone of the reading, images and background music can take Keats out of the 19th century
July 8th 2011 – Keats’ Garden wins at Hampton Court Flower Show
At the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Hampton Court Palace Flower Show this week, visitors have been treated to a display of small gardens based on ‘English Poet’s Gardens’. The theme doesn’t relate to any plot of land actually cultivated by one of the poets, but requires the six designers to take one poem and create a garden inspired by the words and atmosphere created.
It is with not a little tinge of competitive pleasure that I can say that the Gold Medal Winner was the one inspired by John Keats’ sonnet “On the Sea , written in April 1817 on the Isle of Wight. It beat designs based on, for example ‘Rural Architecture’ by Wordsworth , ‘Mont Blanc’ by Shelley and ‘Jabberwocky’ by Lewis Carroll.
The designer, Barry Chambers, has created a garden that ‘rejoices in chaos’, reflecting the desolate shores and stormy sea that Keats contrasts with the banalities and frustrations of everyday life.
The description of the garden states :
Like a stormy sea, many of the plants are exuberant and out of control. But the restricted colour palette provides relief for the senses similar to that to which Keats refers in his poem. Above the archway (the mouth of a cavern) the three faces of the Titan God Hecate emerge from the chalk cliff.
It clearly isn’t a garden for those that prefer regimented ornamentation. It contrasts for example with that based on ‘Jabberwocky’ which is more abstract and ordered, or the romantic ‘Love’s Last Adieu’ by Lord Byron which is much more traditionally ‘cottage garden’.
To see all the entrants, go to the RHS show website where you can see larger and somewhat better photographs. I would love to have seen all the gardens to compare them properly. I sense I may not have ‘voted’ for the Keats garden over at least two of the others. I may not prefer the poets but I think I prefer the designs they inspired. Take a look and see what you think….
Meanwhile, this is the poem which inspired Barry Chambers. It is one of Keats’ earlier compositions, written at the time when he was still working on ‘Endymion’ and although it does not yet show the maturity of his fabulous later work , the first one and a half lines are still very often quoted to describe the overwhelming impact a wide expanse of rock and ocean can have on our experience of the world.
ON THE SEA
By John Keats
It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand Caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
Often ’tis in such gentle temper found,
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be moved for days from where it sometime fell.
When last the winds of Heaven were unbound.
Oh, ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;
Oh ye! whose ears are dinned with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody—
Sit ye near some old Cavern’s Mouth and brood,
Until ye start, as if the sea nymphs quired!
May 30th 2011 New post on my main blog - Where the costumes are a cast member – Keats & Fanny Brawne as fiction in Bright Star
How Fanny Brawne’s reputation as a seamstress became a driving force behind the development of Jane Campion’s film.
May 24th 2011 New post on my main blog: Keats at Guy’s Hospital Part 2 – An education in horror
On the horrors of the dissecting tables and operating theatres Keats was faced with in his training as a medical practitioner.
April 15th New post on my main blog: Keats at Guy’s Hospital Pt 1 – Life in a ‘jumbled heap’ of ‘murky buildings’
A look at the house Keats lodged in as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital, and the squalor of the streets surroundingApril 6th 2011 – A Keats Bibliography
I have enjoyed studying Keats’ life and writing for more than thirty years, and since the purchase of my first book – a collection of his poems from the Everyman Library – I have gathered many more to my shelves. As I learned more, I realised some were actually not that useful, or to my horror, inaccurate.
So I thought I should include on this page a list of the books that, as someone with an amateur rather than professional interest, I have found most interesting, useful and ultimately enjoyable. Accessibility is the key for me. I have some literary criticism on my shelves that I simply cannot get to grips with and I think many are ‘scared’ away from poetry by the thought that to enjoy it you have to understand such writing. I disagree and believe the books listed below will offer anyone an insight into the wonderful poetry and life of John Keats. Of course, it is not comprehensive and the selection is all my own. Many will only be available used, but that is how I have come across most of my ‘collection’. I love a good rummage in a second-hand bookshop!
Anyway, do please feel free to suggest additions and amendments!
Keats – The Complete Poems Edited by Miriam Allott. (Longman 1970)
John Keats – The Complete Poems by Jack Stillinger (Heinemann 1978)
The two above are renowned for being well annotated and comprehensive. However, a great current publication is the Penguin Classics Complete Poems edited by John Barnard, another brilliant Keats scholar.
It is possible to get books that offer a selection of poems and letters, but I believe the letters deserve an edition of their own. Some of the less well-known missives are full of fine imagery, with and self-deprecating humour.
Keats Letters – Robert Gittings (Oxford World Classics brought out a new edition of this in 2009.)
You may come across secondhand copies of the Letters of John Keats by H Buxton Foreman and the Complete Letters in two volumes by Hyder Rollins. I have both, but still go back to the Gittings as the most accessible.
There are so many biographies of Keats, in and out of print, that it is difficult to know what is worth the time spent reading. The following are well respected and accessible and for me Andrew Motion gets closest to the ‘real’ Keats – or the version many scholars now accept as such. All offer real insight into the poetry as well as the life of Keats.
Keats -Andrew Motion (New Ed Faber & Faber 2003) Andrew Motion worked with Jane Campion on the screenplay for the film ‘Bright Star’.
John Keats – Walter Jackson Bate (Belnap 1964)
John Keats - Robert Gittings(Penguin Classics 2001)
Gittings also wrote two other books I found really informative – ‘The Living Year’ and ‘The Keats Inheritance’
The books listed below are all very different and achieve different things. I can’t describe each in detail but I urge you to look them up, particularly the Plumly ‘personal biography. Published in 2008 it is a reflection on the ‘afterlife’ of a poet by a poet. Wonderful.
Posthumous Keats – Stanley Plumly (WW Norton & Co 2008)
Darkling I Listen – The last days and death of John Keats – John Evangelist Walsh
John Keats & the Culture of Dissent – Nicholas Roe (Clarendon 1998)
Romantic Medicine & John Keats - Hermione de Almeida (OUP USA 1991)
A Routledge Literary Sourcebook The Poems of John Keats – John Strachan (Routledge 2003)
The Cambridge Companion to Keats – Susan J Wolfson (Cambridge University Press 2001)
I have to mention these fictionalised accounts of some aspect of Keats life, or in the case of the small book by Andrew Motion a ‘what if’…
Abba Abba - Anthony Burgess (Minerva 1989)
The Invention of Dr Cake – Andrew Motion (Faber & Faber 2004)
I’d love to think that someone reading this blog would pick up a copy of any one of the above and enjoy it. Of course, you should always start with the poems and letters!
March 17th 2011 New post on main site - Keats House, Hampstead: an architectural and artistic re-build
Looking at the history of Keats House, originally called Wentworth Place, Hampstead and its recent refurbishment. Inspired by the work of contemporary artist Amanda White. Her recent collages looking at the house across the seasons would make a wonderful set of prints – the trustees of Keats House should seize the opportunity…
The loveliest of love letters? Keats to his ‘Bright Star’
I have spent a lot of time with John Keats this week. I had procrastinated for so long that my tax return clashed with an urgent piece of research work I was offered. I was immensely grateful for the latter to pay the former but it did cause me much stress and anxiety – something I am not exactly an expert at dealing with. So it was my copies of ‘The Letters’ and ‘The Poems’ of Keats and another viewing of Jane Campion’s film Bright Star that I turned to, preventing as they do the pulling out of hair and the breaking of cups and dinner plates.
Keats wrote the most striking letters – philosophical, romantic and frankly heartbreaking. One I revisited this week would have many women swooning. It was written by Keats to Fanny Brawne in the summer of 1819, the year in which he wrote much of his best, and best known poetry. He had fallen deeply in love with Fanny over the previous six months and was spending the summer away from her on the Isle of Wight with his friend Charles Brown. In Bright Star, excerpts from this letter are read by Ben Wishaw, who plays Keats, as seen in this clip:
However, it is wonderful to read the whole, veering as it does between barely inexpressible joy and a deep despair:
Postmark: Newport, July 3, 1819
My dearest Lady — I am glad I had not an opportunity of sending off a Letter which I wrote for you on Tuesday night—’twas too much like one out of Rousseau’s Heloise. I am more reasonable this morning. The morning is the only proper time for me to write to a beautiful Girl whom I love so much: for at night, when the lonely day has closed, and the lonely, silent, unmusical Chamber is waiting to receive me as into a Sepulchre, then believe me my passion gets entirely the sway, then I would not have you see those Rhapsodies which I once thought it impossible I should ever give way to, and which I have often laughed at in another, for fear you should [think me] either too unhappy or perhaps a little mad.
I am now at a very pleasant Cottage window, looking onto a beautiful hilly country, with a glimpse of the sea; the morning is very fine. I do not know how elastic my spirit might be, what pleasure I might have in living here and breathing and wandering as free as a stag about this beautiful Coast if the remembrance of you did not weigh so upon me I have never known any unalloy’d Happiness for many days together: the death or sickness of some one has always spoilt my hours—and now when none such troubles oppress me, it is you must confess very hard that another sort of pain should haunt me.
Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom. Will you confess this in the Letter you must write immediately, and do all you can to console me in it—make it rich as a draught of poppies to intoxicate me—write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been. For myself I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain. But however selfish I may feel, I am sure I could never act selfishly: as I told you a day or two before I left Hampstead, I will never return to London if my Fate does not turn up Pam or at least a Court-card. Though I could centre my Happiness in you, I cannot expect to engross your heart so entirely—indeed if I thought you felt as much for me as I do for you at this moment I do not think I could restrain myself from seeing you again tomorrow for the delight of one embrace.
But no—I must live upon hope and Chance. In case of the worst that can happen, I shall still love you—but what hatred shall I have for another!
Some lines I read the other day are continually ringing a peal in my ears:
To see those eyes I prize above mine own
Dart favors on another—
And those sweet lips (yielding immortal nectar)
Be gently press’d by any but myself—
Think, think Francesca, what a cursed thing
It were beyond expression!
Do write immediately. There is no Post from this Place, so you must address Post Office, Newport, Isle of Wight. I know before night I shall curse myself for having sent you so cold a Letter; yet it is better to do it as much in my senses as possible. Be as kind as the distance will permit to your
Present my Compliments to your mother, my love to Margaret and best remembrances to your Brother—if you please so.
Having regained composure after having her breath taken away by the longing expressed in this letter it would be a cool woman who didn’t relish these words, but the intensity might also be a little frightening. Fanny was in her late teens; Keats just 24; his references to loss – the sepulchre, the death or sickness of loved ones, the draught of poppies, three days of delight as butterflies – are I think so very romantic, but quite chilling. Keats asked that all Fanny’s letters to him be burned after his death, a request his friends met. We have no idea of Fanny’s response, but there is a sense in his subsequent letters that whatever words she wrote back to him were never enough to convince him that she loved him as much in return. I believe, though, that the fact that she nursed him in the weeks before his final voyage to Rome (dealing with the consequent gossip that such an arrangement would have attracted); didn’t marry for seven years after Keats’ death; wore his ring on a chain around her neck all her life and kept every one of his letters, contradicts the insecurities Keats felt (no doubt made worse by his failing health) and I for one have always admired her.
When these letters were published a few years after Fanny’s death in 1865, Keats’ reputation was damaged – the Victorians found their sensual language and occasionally angry intensity disturbing. Fanny, until then completely unknown to Keats’ growing readership, was not seen as a fit object of his adoration. However, this view has changed in recent years and Bright Star certainly went some way, albeit fictitiously, towards giving us an understanding of the relationship. There is much we will never know, but I for one find the romance deeply moving.
December 17th 2010.
Universal truths in great poetry
Inspired by Keats, and by poets of the 20th century, I have always wanted to write poetry that I would be happy to share with the world. I think that if you can write good poetry then all the prose writing you do – fact or fiction – benefits from the distillation of thoughts and feelings to the smallest number of words necessary to convey them. Nothing should be superfluous.
That is quite possibly where I have most difficulty and why I don’t share any verse I write. I feel I am naturally verbose and tend to embellish sentences with unnecessary flourishes, a habit that can make poetry flowery, banal and difficult to read.
John Keats is almost as widely admired for his letters as he is for his poetry. He wrote prolifically to friends and relations, using the letters to work through his thoughts on life, death, the soul, the nature of poetry and love. His writing is philosophical and one of the reasons Keats is still so widely read today is, I believe, his understanding of the nature of poetry and the effect it can have on the reader. This is illustrated by an excerpt from a letter written by John Keats to his publisher, John Taylor, early in 1818 (below). This was before he produced the work he is most famous for, and before the publication of ‘Endymion’ in April of the same year. That poem was treated harshly by reviewers, but Keats was his own best critic and by the time he wrote this letter he was already recognising the work’s faults. I believe that his definition of what goes to make a great poem is something all writers should read, and that its description of the effect such writing has on the reader is something that anyone who enjoys any work – prose or poetry – would recognise:
In poetry I have a few axioms, and you will see how far I am from their centre. 1st. I think poetry should surprise by a fine excess, and not by singularity; It should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance. 2d. Its touches of beauty should never be half-way, thereby making the reader breathless, instead of content. The rise, the progress, the setting of Imagery should, like the sun, seem natural to him, shine over him, and set soberly, although in magnificence, leaving him in the luxury of twilight. But it is easier to think what poetry should be, than to write it – And this leads me to another axiom – That if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.
From a letter to John Taylor February 27th, 1818
I have come to the conclusion that at the moment poetry does not come naturally to me and therefore I will stay with prose. For Keats this recognition of what it took to be ‘great’ began to inform his work almost immediately and by the end of 1818 year he was beginning the most productive and brilliant phase of his short career as a poet. Through this blog however, I also hope to introduce you to the wonderful writing in his letters. They are at times uplifting, often melancholy and towards the end of his life, heartbreaking. They also form part of the history of the Romantic circle within which he moved and which included great artists, writers and of course poets of the early 19th century.
11th December 2010. John Keats on the Internet
There are some interesting and varied resources on the internet for those interested in Keats. Some are comprehensive and interesting and as always for the www some are inaccurate, badly written and not to be relied upon. The list below includes those that I return to time and again for information and which offer an accessible approach to understanding Keats life and work and the time and context within which he was writing.
Associations (publishing regular newsletters and journals)
Towns with a Keats connection
Interesting & Accessible articles
Other sites dedicated to Keats
www.john-keats.com (A particularly good Forum)
http://englishhistory.net/keats/contents.html (A really comprehensive site set up by someone with a passion for all things Keatsian.
4th December 2010. New blog post on main site:
Looking at the way John Keats has been portrayed in art over the years; including masks, portraits, sketches and film. How do we ‘picture’ our own Keats?
As an introduction to Keats’ poetry I thought I would reproduce here some of his sonnets that have achieved classic status. He wrote over sixty in a number of forms and next to the great odes are perhaps the most accessible way to enjoy his poetry.
On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
(His first great sonnet, written in 1816)
When I have fears..
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink
(1818, published posthumously 1848)
Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No — yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death.
(First drafted 1818 revised 1820 for Fanny Brawne)
Soft embalmer of the still midnight!
Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleased eyes, embower’d from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfillness divine;
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes,
Or wait the amen, ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities;
Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes;
Save me from curious conscience, that still lords
Its strength, for darkness burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed casket of my soul.
Rather than start a whole new blog about John Keats, my favourite poet, I thought a page dedicated to him might enable me to offer people my own personal perspective on why he means so much to me personally and to millions of others around the world. The links here are to posts on my main page.