Blue Peter, a dead poet and the struggles of the creative mind…

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.

The brilliant Spike Milligan, who struggled with bipolar disorder

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’.

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14 Responses to Blue Peter, a dead poet and the struggles of the creative mind…

  1. Aw, thank you. I’m really honoured that my blog got a mention and definitely think you should write more about your passion for Keats as it is a fascinating subject.

    I remember going to his house in Rome as a student and feeling profoundly sad there. What a tragic waste. :/

    • keatsbabe says:

      Yes – I have been to the house in Rome twice, and seeing the room he lay in was very moving. So sad that he knew going there was pointless really. He would have been better at home with Fanny Brawne…

  2. Lynne Earthy says:

    I had no idea that Keats died so young and that he was studying medicine before he gave it up for poetry. I am looking forward to the monthly blogs depression on depression and hope to add some of my experiences. x

    • keatsbabe says:

      Oh yes, he has the job of holding the patients down for one of the worst Drs in surgery. No anaesthetics of course.. Images run though his poetry. Will come back to you re the blog!

  3. Ellie King says:

    Please please please do a blog on Keats! Have only read some of his work, but I love it and the Bright Star film was wonderful too. Would love to find out more about him and be introduced to more of his work 🙂

  4. Jane Travers says:

    Thanks so much for the mention!

    I’d so love you to do a blog on Keats. I’m obviously not as obsessed as you, but I find him to be a genuinely interesting character and would really enjoy reading more about him as hour blog develops. Good luck with it!

    • keatsbabe says:

      I amnot sure anyone is as obsessed as me! But that is only because he is so interesting. The same thing draws people to him now as did when he was alive – his friends adored him and never waivered in their efforts to get his work known.

  5. Rin says:

    Great post, and very interesting link to the Indy feature. I’m fascinated by mental health issues, having experienced depression myself and through family members (my father was bipolar and eventually committed suicide). I’d be very happy to guest blog if you’d like, just drop me a line.

    • keatsbabe says:

      Yes please Rin – love you to guest blog! I wil have to get some timetabled. So so sorry to hear about your father – it is so crucial to further people’s understanding of mental health.

  6. the dotterel says:

    I’d be happy to contribute something on the subject of mental health… bit of a hobby horse of mine, having dealt with so many teenagers with so many problems.

    PS: Love Keats too!

    • keatsbabe says:

      Another fan! There are many of us out there actually. It is because Keats still seems relevent today in a way other Romantic poets don’t.

      Thank you – I would love you to guest post for my blog. I will be in touch.

  7. felinepaws says:

    I loved reading your blog Suzie. I do understand the fascination you have with Keats, my own particular ‘obsessions’ are with the aforementioned Salvidor Dali (and other Surrealist art), Vincent Van Gogh (who may also have been bipolar but was never diagnosed). I am also a big fan of the Alfred Hitchcock (and love the Surreal element to his films and have been since a child.

    I feel inspired to check out the film you mentioned about John Keats and learn more about his poetry as a direct result of your blog.

    Well done. Louise

    • keatsbabe says:

      Thank you! Yes – you must see Bright Star – very quiet and beautiful and very very moving. Not at all like Alfred Hitchcock though 🙂

      Van Gogh is a fascinating character, surrounded by much myth. Salvador Dali has always confused me but that is because I have never really studied him. You have inspired me in return!

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