For The Eve of St Agnes – John Keats at his very best

image2

This is just a quick post, as today is St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was

The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold; The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass, And silent was the flock in woolly fold:

That, of course, was not me. The words are by John Keats, the poet who has inspired me and saved me in equal measure. The Eve of St Agnes was written approximately 200 years ago, so this is its bicentenary, and just over two years later the author would be dead, aged just 25.
 
There are stanzas in the poem that are filled with, I think, the most beautiful lines ever written. Today, on St Agnes’ Eve (when, if you are a virgin, and really keen, you can eschew the delights of Tinder, go to bed early without eating and lie, looking only ‘heavenwards’, to encourage a vision of the man of your dreams) I just wanted to encourage you to read aloud the following (stanzas 23 and 24), and let the sensuous imagery roll around your mouth and off your tongue…
 
 Out went the taper as she hurried in; 
       Its little smoke, in pallid moonshine, died: 
       She clos’d the door, she panted, all akin 
       To spirits of the air, and visions wide: 
       No uttered syllable, or, woe betide! 
       But to her heart, her heart was voluble, 
       Paining with eloquence her balmy side; 
       As though a tongueless nightingale should swell 
Her throat in vain, and die, heart-stifled, in her dell. 
 
       A casement high and triple-arch’d there was, 
       All garlanded with carven imag’ries 
       Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass, 
       And diamonded with panes of quaint device, 
       Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes, 
       As are the tiger-moth’s deep-damask’d wings; 
       And in the midst, ‘mong thousand heraldries, 
       And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings, 
A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of queens and kings. 
 
Read the whole poem HERE. John Keats was a courageous and strong young man, a genius, his life cut short by tuberculosis. For the next two years, until the bicentenary of his death in 2021 (when my own book about the great man comes out) the Keats 200 project will be marking the anniversaries of his best-known work, most of the poems written in 1819. Do take a look and find out more – Keats’s letters and poetry will inspire and warm your soul.
 
(The painting is by pre-raphaelite William Holman Hunt, for whom Keats was the perfect subject – full of luscious colours)
 

And they are gone: ay, ages long ago/ These lovers fled away into the storm.

Marking the ending of John Keats’s life, and the beginning of a new project…

John Keats on his death bed

 

side-of-house
Keats-Shelley House, Rome.

Today – the 23rd February – marks the 197th anniversary of the death of the poet John Keats, in an apartment (now the Keats-Shelley House & Museum) looking over the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Anyone who has read my blog will know of my passion for his poetry and letters, his philosophy and the way he lived his life. Not simply a brilliant poet, he was brave in the face of tragedy, loyal to his friends – who treasured his memory – and a man of great intellect. He remains popular today, globally,  because he is relevant today and has much to say about the world and its workings that still make us say ‘Yes! That’s just what I think!’

 

death-largerI have written two posts on this blog marking Keats’s death. The first was ‘He is gone…’ Joseph Severn on the death of John Keats’ back in 2012, in which I quoted the letter from Severn – who had nursed Keats to his last breath – announcing his death to Charles Brown, the great friend with whom Keats had lived in Wentworth Place in Hampstead. The description of Keats’s last moments is heartrending, and the deathbed picture sketched by Severn, a talented young artist at the beginning of a long career, is one of the most iconic images of Keats we have.

The second post, entitled ‘The ‘vital’ death of John Keats: ending the myth of weakness’ I wrote just last year. I wanted to highlight the long-standing, mistaken, representation of Keats as the frail young romantic hounded to his death by cruel critics of his work. He was actually physically strong, quick-tempered, energetic, courageous and philosophical in the face of criticism – he was his own greatest critic after all. In this post, I wanted to illustrate how, more recently, the recognition that his friends sought to promote his life and work by promoting the image of doomed youth was, although done with the greatest love, a source of much mythologising and misrepresentation.

Today though, I want to celebrate his life and celebrate the opportunity I now have to add to the work devoted to the great man. I am thrilled to announce that I have been commissioned (yes, a publisher is actually paying me!!) to write a book about John Keats, an ‘In the footsteps of…’ following him to places that influenced his life and work. It will place Keats in cities, towns and villages, in parts of the country he visited, stayed in and, ultimately died in. It will be, in some senses, a social history (I will include the historical context; Keats was influenced by the realities of the world around him as well as the classical texts he read so avidly) and will add to the research I did for Death Disease and Dissection on his time as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital in London. I want it to be accessible, well researched and eminently readable. I have always hoped my posts on here, and on The Romanticism Blog for The Wordsworth Trust, have shown that poetry is for everyone and a strictly academic knowledge and approach unnecessary to the enjoyment of Keats poetry and letters.

It will be published, along with many other studies I am sure, in 2021, to mark the bicentenary of his death. My challenge is to make it stand out in some way – something I know will be very difficult. But after 40 years of influence, I am sure Keats can still help me bring him to the page and once again be part of the celebration of his life and the marking of his death.

Death, Disease & Dissection: Keats, Quacks & Bodysnatchers – what’s not to like?

Death Disease & DissectionAt last, I can catch my breath and report back on the launch of my second book with Pen and Sword, Death, Disease & Dissection: The working life of a surgeon-apothecary 1750-1850. The book has only been out for a couple of weeks, but it has been a part of my life for so long I can’t believe I am only really now telling people about it. As many of you who read my blog regularly know, this has been a difficult year for me and for my family so that vital marketing has been left a little behind. I am just hoping it doesn’t affect sales too much. These things matter so much now, especially with Christmas coming up.

LitFest3On Thursday 16th November I spoke to a sell-out crowd at Taunton Literary Festival, presenting some gruesome pictures of horrible procedures to much groaning and squirming (and laughter) in the audience.  Nothing like the quack doctor and failed boot polish salesman Dr Solomon and his Cordial of Gilead to tickle a few ribs, and descriptions of a lithotomy (removal of a bladder stone in men) to get a few chaps crossing their legs too…

We then celebrated with wine and cake (by the fabulous Charlie of Charlotte Jane Cakes) and a book signing that went really well. Lionel and Jo Ward of Brendon Books are so supportive (Lionel founded the festival) that is was an evening I will remember for a long time, and feedback has been fabulous. If you are in the Taunton area do take a look at the bookshop in Bath Place that can often get a book to you faster than Amazon…

Anyway, what is the book about? The premise of the book is summarised up quite well by the blurb the publisher printed on the back:

Imagine performing surgery on a patient without anaesthetic, administering medicine that could kill or cure. Welcome to the world of the surgeon-apothecary…During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, significant changes occurred in medicine. New treatments were developed and medical training improved. Yet, with doctors’ fees out of the reach of ordinary people, most relied on the advice of their local apothecary, among them, the poet John Keats, who worked at Guys Hospital in London. These men were the general practitioners of their time, making up pills and potions for everything from a toothache to childbirth. Death, Disease and Dissection examines the vital role these men played their training, the role they played within their communities, the treatments they offered, both quack and reputable against the shocking sights and sounds in hospitals and operating theatres of the time. Suzie Grogan transports readers through 100 years of medical history, exploring the impact of illness and death and bringing the experiences of the surgeon-apothecary vividly to life.

wax head
Wax anatomical model of human head c1800

I examine the class structure of the medical profession, the training a young man had to go through and the sort of life he would have enjoyed (or otherwise) when he was qualified. The medicines available to treat the most common illnesses and the operations undertaken at great risk to the patient (and sometimes to the surgeon) are detailed, as is the vital work of the anatomist, dissecting bodies (often obtained by body-snatchers) to understand the workings of the human body. It was a time of great change and is populated by some wonderful characters – good and bad – who occasionally sound like something out of a gothic-horror novel.

Keats
John Keats

I was inspired to write the book when I was keen to find out more about the life John Keats, my favourite poet, would have lived had he not given up medicine (after nearly 7 years of training) to pursue one in poetry. He was so far from the frail romantic image many still have of him that I was determined to highlight how hard he had worked in what desperate conditions to become a man filled with empathy and knowledge of the harsh realities of life. The publisher wouldn’t let me indulge my passion for the man with a chapter to himself, but they have commissioned me to write a separate book about him which is a thrill.

I have also found out that this subject is on the GCSE curriculum and it has already got a 5* review from someone working in the NHS with a teenager using it to mug up on coursework, which is gratifying. It was also an era covered by the fabulous BBC2 comedy Quacks earlier this year. Historically accurate, it is highly recommended if you can get hold of a box set.

Quacks
BBC2’s Quacks

So please do consider buying a copy for the history lover in your life, especially if they have an interest in the Georgian period or a bit of Victorian gothic. It also details many issues affecting the poor specifically and there is little doubt that many of the deeply committed men ( women were excluded from medical training as a doctor during this time) I offer short biographies of are the forerunners of today’s general practitioners, facing many of the same problems.

Death Disease & Dissection (ISBN: 9781473823532) is available from Pen & Sword, Amazon and all good online and high street retailers.

 

Hoping ‘…it passes smoothly, quietly’ – on the anniversary of John Keats’s birth, his birthday wish ‘To my brothers’

John Keats

Today marks the birthday of the poet John Keats. He was born on 31st October (the day is not absolutely established, but most likely) 1795 in Moorgate, London and he died just 25 years later, in Rome. During that period he developed with astonishing speed, as a poet, letter-writer and as a man and he has written some of the very best poetry (and the most wonderful letters) in the English language.

Today on social media there is much celebration of this day – not least because Keats remains one of the most relevant and admired poets of the 19th century. He speaks to us across the centuries, of matters close to our hearts in this fast-paced and often difficult world. It is a subject I have written about for The Wordsworth Trust Romanticism blog in ‘Moods of my own Mind: Keats, melancholy and mental health’. 

Tom Keats

However, instead of his most famous lines, I thought I would share a poem that was written very early in his career as a poet and at the end of his time as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital. It is an early poem to George and Tom, his brothers with whom he had recently set up home. It is to mark Tom’s 17th birthday in 1816 and celebrates their time together, as brothers and housemates, and the joy they can share in this simple, companionable existence. For those that know of Keats’s life, and that of his siblings, it is hard not to feel a sense of sadness –  the brothers were close, not least because they had lost their parents at an early age. The poem foreshadows the death of Tom, of tuberculosis, just two years later, and the loss of his brother George to a new life in America in the same year. Those losses were traumatic, but shaped his development as a poet,  and although he was beset by constant money troubles and the knowledge that the woman he loved could never be his,  he was determined to ‘be among the English poets’ after his death.

To my brothers…

Small, busy flames play through the fresh laid coals,
And their faint cracklings o’er our silence creep
Like whispers of the household gods that keep
A gentle empire o’er fraternal souls.
And while, for rhymes, I search around the poles,
Your eyes are fix d, as in poetic sleep,
Upon the lore so voluble and deep,
That aye at fall of night our care condoles.
This is your birth-day Tom, and I rejoice
That thus it passes smoothly, quietly.
Many such eves of gently whisp’ring noise
May we together pass, and calmly try
What are this world s true joys, ere the great voice,
From its fair face, shall bid our spirits fly.

George Keats

Clearly, Keats was not a great one for birthday parties, or nights out to mark the passing of another year. This quiet companionship on an early winter evening is all he wants and hopes for before their life together ends.  It is about fragility, about familial love and support and the knowledge that this happy peace cannot last forever. He is still finding his way with words – searching ‘around the poles’ for rhymes – but he succeeds in bringing that crackling fire to life, as if it is a character in the room with them, whispering them into drowsiness and sleep.

So happy birthday my friend (and he has been that to me, in difficult times.) There are many of us who would benefit from the quieter existence described in this sonnet.

 

Sharing Shelley’s moonbeams…

1200px-Percy_Bysshe_Shelley_by_Alfred_Clint
Percy Bysshe Shelley

My poor neglected blog – again. There are no excuses, but there are reasons, this time anyway. My mum died two weeks ago now. The funeral was less than a week ago and frankly, it is all still too raw to write about, and I am not sure you would want to hear it anyway. One day perhaps…

But I felt I had to write something today, about love, about yearning and about the possible joy love can bring. Losing someone is terrible, the pain such a contrast to happier times. The world seems a desperate place at the moment. We are surrounded by terrible images, endless news ‘updates’ that seem almost to glory in the horrors human beings are facing. We long to help, do what little we can and then watch others seeming to do so much more. How tiny and inadequate one can feel at the moment. We live fast-paced lives as if we are immortal, yet death is all around us and frighteningly close.

But we are surrounded by love too if we can but see it.

TR
Tom Riley in Lewis

One of my favourite poems is not, believe it or not, by John Keats. Called Love’s Philosophy it is by his contemporary, however, and fellow Romantic, Percy Bysshe Shelley. I don’t read much Shelley, to be honest. He wrote ‘Adonais’, an elegy on the death of Keats which, however well meant,  was no small part of the early movement that saw Keats depicted, quite wrongly, as a rather fragile man, incapable of taking the criticism without swooning and dying. However, I was drawn to this poem by an episode of the crime drama Lewis called ‘And the moonbeams kiss the sea’, which featured a rather lovely performance by actor Tom Riley as an autistic artist, innocently forging letters in Shelley’s hand. This poem is quoted in what has turned out to be one of the best episodes of a fantastic series, and turning to my poetry shelves I read it in full and fell in love with it immediately.

Love’s Philosophy by Percy Bysshe Shelley

The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix forever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single,
All things by a law divine
In another’s being mingle
Why not I with thine?

See the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother:
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea –
What is all this sweet work worth,
If thou kiss not me?

Full of dreamy innocence, whilst at the same time using the laws of the natural world as a means of seduction, the second stanza strikes me as one of the most captivating expressions of the potential joy of love. Those images of nature as lover are irresistible and lead inexorably to that last line, which charms as it pleads. It is simple and lovely.

It may seem odd to share a poem such as this when I am experiencing a personal loss, and so many others are staring into an abyss. However, it is now that our love for one another is often shown most clearly.

After all, what is the point of all the wonders of the world if we can’t, simply, love one another?

The ‘vital’ death of John Keats: ending the myth of weakness

John Keats on his death bed

John Keats on his death bed
John Keats on his death bed – a sketch by Joseph Severn

Today is the anniversary of the death of the poet John Keats, in Rome, on the 23rd February 1821. He was just 25, and suffered from tuberculosis (or consumption as it was then known). His friend, Joseph Severn, who nursed him during his months in Rome, where he had sought relief in the warmer climate, wrote in a letter ‘He is gone–he died with the most perfect ease–he seemed to go to sleep.’  However, he had actually endured weeks of agony whilst doctors misdiagnosed and mistreated his condition, and the end was a blessed relief to Keats, and to Severn.

Why is Keats’s death so particularly moving? Shelley and Byron and a myriad other well-known poets have died young, or relatively so. Descriptions of and reactions to the deaths of Shelley and Byron, for example,  seem almost theatrical in comparison. Perhaps the way in which Wilfred Owen, himself influenced by the work of Keats, died, just before the Armistice was signed at the end of the Great War, touches us in a similar way. But Keats’s death haunts me, has haunted me for years, and his loss remains, I believe, one of the greatest in British literary history.

I have written many times on this blog of my enduring love for the poetry and letters of Keats. I first read his work after watching a ‘Blue Peter Special Assignment’ about him in the mid-1970s. I was just 12 years old, already a deep-thinking and rather anxious child, and I took Keats, literally, to heart. I read and memorised the poetry, I bought a book of his letters, and struggled, then, with the language and philosophy that make him such a relevant poet today. At 14 I read Robert Gitting’s biography, still one of the best, and over the years since then I have widened and deepened my reading of his life and work. I am not an academic, but an enthusiastic, and I hope knowledgeable, devotee of the man.  His poetry has taken me through some dark times, and his letters,  full of profound wisdom and knowledge of the ways of human hearts, resonate with me in the 21st century as much as they ever did, more so perhaps in these deeply troubled times.

Over the decades, ‘my Keats’ has developed as my understanding has also grown and deepened. Reading about his life, particularly older biographies of him, I began to feel that something was failing to ‘fit’. His letters were full of a vitality at odds with some of the early descriptions, and the sensuality in his poems was suggestive of a strength of character in the face of possible criticism that belied the old belief that critics themselves were so important to his view of himself.

So if it is not his youth, I wonder why his death touches so many? Perhaps it is because of the tragedy of his love for Fanny Brawne, left back in England. He knew as he sailed to Italy that he would never see her again, and could not bear to look at her letters in his final months. Is it because he had spent months nursing his mother and then his younger brother through the final stages of what was a ‘family disease’, only to succumb to it himself?

Is it with knowledge of the moving way he had written of death in his poetry? For example, the sixth stanza of Ode to a Nightingale:

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
  I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,
  To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die, 
  To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
    While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
          In such an ecstasy!
   Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
     To thy high requiem become a sod.

Or in the sonnet  ‘When I have fears..’ which begins, prophetically, with the words:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,

Then in his letter to Fanny Brawne, written in July 1819, less than two years before his death:

I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute.

Or is it, perhaps, the epitaph he wrote for himself – ‘Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water’? Those enigmatic words – are they hinting at either a bitterness at the lack of time to make a permanent mark on the literary world, or at a belief that all life lacks permanence, that we are all but brief impressions, impermanent in the face of the overwhelming beauty of life? Or something else?

Keats death mask
Keats – death mask, showing the ravages of his final days

For me, the real poignancy of his death is in the legacy his friends sought for his ‘posthumous life’, adding to and turning that brief and unexplained epitaph into something expressing real bitterness at his lot; the idea that he died in a fury, a sensitive young man railing at his critics, unforgiving in the face of a fate he didn’t think he deserved. It feels SO WRONG, I think, when the wonderful poetry and letters he left behind suggest something quite different. As Michelle Stacey wrote in her terrific tribute to Keats written for The Paris Review on this date last year:

Aside from requesting the “writ in water” epitaph, Keats did not lament his coming end or curse his enemies on his deathbed. If anything, he lamented his continued life. He wrote to a friend of “leading a posthumous existence,” and complained in the same terms to Severn, who wrote that Keats would sometimes weep when he awoke and found himself still living.

There were, of course, moments of deep despair, of disappointment and of loss. Joseph Severn had nursed him, terrified that Keats would attempt suicide when in his darkest moods. But there was calm too. As Stacey points out, Severn reports quieter moment, when Keats looked forward to the ‘quiet grave’ and like Stacey I was struck by the daisies, still there on the ceiling of the room in which he died in Rome. Severn reported that the poet could almost feel them growing over him as he lay there. It was an image to comfort friends, but also one that suggests acceptance and reflection.

The grave of John KeatsIn adding to the tombstone words suggesting that it was, to all intents and purposes, the ‘Malicious Power of his Enemies’ (the critics) that hastened Keats’s death, and then promulgating the myth of the over-sensitive, weakling poet in work such as Adonais by Shelley, the friends who loved the man and admired what we know now to be some of the greatest poetry ever written did him a gross disservice. Before his final months he was physically strong, short and stocky and people were forcibly struck by the energy and yes, the vitality of the man. By changing the epitaph I think that vital spark was diminished, and it took decades for a truer picture to become established. Even now, many think of him as the archetypal ‘Romantic’ poet, laying in a faint over the back of a chaise longue…

The myth endured, and only in the last fifty years have we properly understood the strength of Keats, from his work on the wards of Guy’s Hospital during his medical training, to his political beliefs, the support he gave friends and family, and in the courage he showed in the face of death. Now we can acknowledge the fiery temper, the jealousy exhibited in his love for Fanny, the possible over-reliance on laudanum, alongside the generosity of spirit, loyalty and wisdom beyond his years. The latest biography of Keats, by Nicholas Roe, offers a particularly comprehensive and complex analysis of the man and his influences. He was so much more than the innocent young poet abroad, and I think only now does his biography sit comfortably with his poetry and letters.

I have written for a long time of the relevance of Keats’s poetry to life in the 21st century – his philosophy is timeless; always energetic and fresh with passages that still make one cry out ‘Yes! That’s it!’. And the manner of his death, so young, allows him to remain timeless as a physical figure in our minds. His death deserves to be a moment treasured, not simply as that of a talented man dying tragically young, but as one which brings us to his life, and the stunning vitality of it.

 

The loveliest of love letters? Keats to his ‘Bright Star’

keatssevI have just had to empty and refill my bookcases, seeing them painted and replaced in our newly decorated dining room (which doubles up as a work space). So I have been able to take another look at my lovely array of books of John Keats‘s poetry and letters, biographies written over the past 150 years and critical discussion of his writing. I wanted to run away for a week and reread my favourites – there just doesn’t seem time to do them justice amongst the jumble of other things I do in the week to earn a living. At times of stress I regularly turn, in short bursts, to my copies of ‘The Letters’ and ‘The Poems’ of Keats,  and may fit in another viewing of Jane Campion’s film Bright Star , preventing as they do the pulling out of hair and the breaking of cups and dinner plates.

John Keats wrote the most striking letters – philosophical, romantic  and frankly heartbreaking. Many explain his poetic philosophy and add significantly to the power of his poetry, others are amusing and lighthearted. One I recently revisited 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 Whishaw, who plays Keats, as heard in this clip (although the images are not from the film):

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

Shanklin, Isle of Wight, Thursday

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!

J.

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.

Guest post by Pamela Davenport: The Models & Muses of the Pre Raphaelites: Annie Miller

Back in January I was thrilled to welcome Pamela Davenport, a fellow lover of all things art and literature, as a guest blogger on No wriggling.  Millais – A compassionate portrait of Opheilia was such a success and, she assures me, an enjoyable experience for her,  that she has written another piece about the Pre – Raphaelite Brotherhood for me to share with my readers. Perhaps it would be fairer to say this post is about one of the ‘sisterhood’ of  women used (and, perhaps, abused) by the artists in that Bohemian group – one of, as Pamela says, the ‘bohemians and stunners’,  Annie Miller. Once again, I must thank Pamela for all the research she does to tell us more about this fascinating period in British art.

Annie MillerIn my previous guest blog I explored the way in which Millais, the golden boy of The Royal Academy, used inspiration from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet to produce a beautiful visual portrayal of the last moments of Ophelia’s life. The models and muses became an important part of the work of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). So how were these supermodels of the nineteenth century discovered? Annie Miller was there at the beginning of the Brotherhood and no doubt helped to shape their art. But how did Annie get her lucky break?

Born into poverty and orphaned as a child, she was brought up by her aunt and uncle, a laundress and a shoe maker, in the slums of London. With her wild and filthy hair and covered in vermin, William Holman Hunt, an original member of the PRB, saw a beauty to be rescued by a knight errant, from her life of poverty. Hunt wished to transform Annie, Pygmalion-style, and set about educating her. However, did he ever intend to marry her?

Annie made her first appearance as the model in The Awakening Conscience, 1853 (above). If one looks closely there are references to Annie’s relationship to William in the painting. and the sense that this woman is kept as a mistress, rather than a wife. However, there was always an ambiguity about their stormy relationship. After one of their many rifts, William repainted the face, using his wife Fanny Waugh. William considered himself Annie’s saviour, but he never proposed or showed much interest in her after a lengthy absence in the Middle-East. I like to think that she was fiercely independent; after all she came from an era when love was not a first priority, making a match was.

So what would you do if the man who pays your bills, pays for your education, and controls your life clears off to the Holy Land, with no promise that he would return, let alone marry you? In this case absence certainly did not make Annie’s heart grow fonder. Was this the wake-up call Annie needed? Apparently Annie had a mind of her own and in Hunt’s absence she was seen out socially with different men, including both Rossetti brothers, Dante Gabriel and William, and the artist George Boyce. Just as Henry Higgins lost his power and influence over Eliza Doolittle, Annie spread her wings and turned away from the staid and solid Hunt and sought a world of excitement

Although there are some Hunt images of Annie, there are admittedly more by other people, mostly Rossetti. Ah Rossetti, I wondered when we’d come to you! Although he helped her financially, Hunt also had to give his permission for her to sit for other artists, and the “bad boy” Rossetti was not one of them. Rossetti – yes there is a romantic view of him, this bohemian who probably was more exciting than the dour William Hunt;the man about town with his dark flowing hair, whose art and poetry contained sensuality and realism that captured the bohemians and stunners on his canvases.

With their voluptuous figures and loose luxuriant hair, Annie and other ‘stunners’ became an emblem of female sexuality , with a suggestion of loose morals. These breath-taking works, with their hidden secrets, high spirits and high aspirations, challenged Victorian morals and conventions. To me, Rossetti and his relationships with his muses and models became more interesting than any soap opera. In particular I found his relationship with Annie Miller fascinating. With her amazing blond hair and her curvaceous figure Annie had caught the eye and imagination of many artists and Annie soon became seduced by the glamour of the artists’ studios and the ‘reality show’ fame attached to the role. Just like Eliza Doolittle she never knew what made her role so exciting and why her heart took flight!

Annie as helen
Woman in Yellow – Dante Gabriel Rossetti

As with many Pre-Raphaelite women, Annie became the object of Rossetti’s infatuation and desires.  He used her as a model incessantly while Hunt was away. Unfortunately Rossetti was married to Elizabeth Siddal at the time and his obsession caused arguments and friction between Lizzie and Rossetti. Whether from sexual jealously or something deeper, it is thought that Lizzie felt her role as Rossetti’s muse was threatened. Was this really a love triangle? It certainly adds an interesting dimension to the drama. After Lizzie died, in 1862 Annie posed for Rossetti for two stunning paintings, Woman in Yellow (above) and Helen of Troy, showing how she had become briefly the supermodel of the nineteenth century.

annie as helen 2
Helen of Troy

This image of Helen of Troy clearly demonstrates the Pre Raphaelite hallmark of women, with the rippling hair, full lips, the hair ornaments and jewellery. No wonder Mrs Gaskell referred to Rossetti as “not mad as a March hare, but hair mad”.  The loose luxuriant hair can be viewed as an emblem of female sexuality, but did this necessary equate to loose morals?

In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms; And none but thou shalt be my paramour!”

Although Annie has been immortalised on canvas there have been some critics who did not view her as the beautiful Helen of Troy. So why did Rossetti choose Annie to be his model for this radiant paining?  Does the poem Rossetti wrote to complement the painting, Troy Town, provide any more insight, with its emphasis  on love, desire and beauty?

Undeniably Annie came from a lowly background, so perhaps subconsciously Rossetti was elevating her status just as Holman Hunt had tried to do.

Just as the tabloid media now has a ‘field day’ with celebrities, there have been many people who viewed Annie’s lifestyle judgmentally, assuming that she was rather too free with her favours. This has been reinforced by several dramatic portrayals in the twentieth century, which included Ken Russell’s Dante Inferno in 1967, the Love School in 1975 and Desperate Romantics in 2009. Would it be more realistic to state that Annie was aware that her modelling career was short lived and that these  friendships were more to do with self-preservation?

By 1863, Annie’s career was on the wane as Rossetti, ever fickle with his emotional attachments, replaced Annie with the gregarious Fanny Cornford.  Finally Janey Morris, the wife of William, with her lean pale face and her mass of long dark brown hair, represented an alternative beauty to the ‘stunners’. The bohemian lifestyle was left behind as Annie chose a more sedate lifestyle and moved to Hampstead.

Like Eliza Doolittle, Annie married and settled down with Thomas Thomason, in Shoreham by Sea, employing a cook, housemaid and parlour maid. Annie and Thomas had one daughter who recalled her mother as “being lovely and ladylike, wearing exquisite handmade shoes and kid gloves”.

Annie overcame many barriers, from a Victorian childhood living in poverty with no hope for the future, to posing as the face that launched a thousand ships as Helen of Troy. Her relationship with Holman Hunt caused rifts and conflicts and eventually ties between them were severed. But Annie was assertive and she stood up to him and amazingly lived her own life on her own terms, as much as any woman in her position could do in such a restrictive and stifling era. “ I’ll never know what made it so exciting, why all at once my heart took flight, I only know when he began to dance with me I could have danced, danced, danced all night”.

Annie Miller was a fascinating woman, especially during an era when the social structure of society was different and the position of women in society was one of that being defined by the men in their lives.

What a journey Annie had travelled from the dirty unhygienic slums of London to the quiet Sussex coast. Annie lived until 1925 when she died at the age of 90.

0a9a86fPamela Davenport is an experienced Higher and Further Education teacher, who has substantial experience working with children and young people in social care, community and educational settings. Pamela has undertaken 8 European visits, to Germany, Belgium, Spain and Finland, as part of the British Council’s Erasmus/Socrates Teacher Mobility Project. Writer on Social Care Values in Practice, Human Development Across The Lifespan, Working in a Multi-cultural Society, The Invisible Child, The Rights of Children and co-author for Teacher’s Handbook for HUGS Charity. She is a passionate lover of art and literature, in particular Shakespeare, the Romantics, the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, The Impressionists and Picasso.
Join her on twitter @pameladav3 and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pameladav

It isn’t all roses & chocolates: the love of ‘La Belle Dame…’

John_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893)
John William Waterhouse – La Belle Dame sans Merci 1893

I have written a number of posts highlighting some of the world’s most beautiful love poetry.  Many are under the banner of ‘Love Songs you wish you had written…’, a meme I took from the wonderful Dad Poet, David J Beauman. Some of the poems I have chosen in the past are full of longing, or are wistful. Some are simply dedicated to a chosen one, or highlight the very simplicity and ordinariness of life in a comfortable, loving relationship. I am in one such, so it has been, I suppose, more natural to choose poems that praise something most of us search for, more or less successfully, throughout our lives. A few have been more cynical, or tempered with the sense of an ending, but I don’t think any have focused on the unhappy or even destructive consequences of a disastrous affair and I thought it might be time to redress the balance a little. After all, St Valentine’s Day is not for everyone. The poem I have chosen today might convert many to the joys of singledom, for example……

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats  (published version, 1820)

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
Alone and palely loitering;
The sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever dew;
And on thy cheek a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads
Full beautiful, a faery’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long;
For sideways would she lean, and sing
A faery’s song.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look’d at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna dew;
And sure in language strange she said,
I love thee true.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gaz’d and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes–
So kiss’d to sleep.

And there we slumber’d on the moss,
And there I dream’d, ah woe betide,
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cry’d–“La belle Dame sans merci
Hath thee in thrall!”

I saw their starv’d lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
On the cold hill side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

This is one of John Keats’s most famous poems, subject to a myriad interpretations, linked to his love for Fanny Brawne, his fears about the destructive nature of passion (particularly on his poetic ambitions) and his incipient decline into the latter stages of the tuberculosis that was to kill him in 1821. It can be read as full of ‘double entendres’ – sitting a woman on his ‘pacing steed’, garlanding a ‘fragrant zone’ and enjoying much sighing and moaning, suggestive of a night of passion. Or you can read it as a gothic tale of a cruel “beautiful lady without mercy” as the French translation of the title suggests. In any event, it is, in my opinion, a brilliant, tightly structured ballad that creates intense atmosphere and offers a clear warning to those beguiled by passion and romance –  if only our nameless knight had seen the kings and princes already abandoned by their cruel lover- ‘I saw their starved lips in the gloam,/With horrid warning gapèd wide,’.

I have written about how Keats has influenced artists through the ages – from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood , through to graphic novelists, comic-book  writers and contemporary film-makers, but to day it may be seen as one for those who are rather sick of the hearts, flowers and sickly sentimental commercialism that often seems to accompany St Valentine’s Day. Have a good day anyway……

 

 

 

Millais – A compassionate portrait of Opheilia – a guest post by Pamela Davenport

Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896
Ophelia 1851-2 Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

Today on No Wriggling I am thrilled to host a guest piece by Pamela Davenport, a fellow lover of all things art and literature and, like me, an author on The Wordsworth Trust blog. Find out more about her at the end of the post, and let us know how you feel about this painting and the work of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. We would love to hear from you.

While at University in the mid-1980s, I made regular visits to Manchester City Art Gallery and became fascinated with the ‘boy band’, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. So many questions came to mind, amongst them – where did they get their vision, creativity, insight and most of all inspiration? I soon discovered that literature was an important aspect of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, taking their inspiration from the Romantic Poets, including Keats as well as Ovid and Shakespeare. The three original members of the group, the charismatic Rossetti, the serious theorist Hunt and Millais with his prodigious talent, become known as The Young Ones who wanted to modernise art.  Led by Rossetti this unique band became known for their pranks, midnight jaunts around London’s streets and pleasure gardens and late night drinking sessions.

MilliasThis Band of Brothers, with their “military” action against the art establishment, was brought together with the intention of painting serious subjects taking inspiration from the artists of the middle ages and the great works of literature. This revolutionary artistic group was to be faithful to nature and paint outdoors, and in this Shakespeare’s plays offered ideal subject matter. Not only does Shakespeare describe beautiful natural scenes, but he writes scenes of emotional and moral complexity. This juxtaposition of art and literature totally captivated me.

It was his fascination with the females in Shakespeare’s plays that is obvious in Millais’ work. From the beautiful, rich and intelligent Portia, in the Merchant of Venice to the witty, fun, loyal, ingenious and decisive Rosalind, in As You Like It, Millais clearly adds depth and character to his compositions. But it was the image and the story of Ophelia which took my breath away when I first saw the painting in the Tate.

Initially I was drawn to Arthur Hughes’ interpretation of Ophelia’s contemplating death. This delicate pale young girl, with long fair hair, with a crown of reeds and flowers on her head and dressed in white drapery intrigued me. With her deep sorrowful expression Ophelia is seated in the centre of the painting in a dark, swampy woodland setting. But nothing could compare to Millais representation of this Shakespearean heroine. It was like stepping out into sunlight, with the clarity of colour and heartfelt emotion that made my heart skip a beat.

I have seen various productions of Hamlet and what has always struck me is that  through his poetry and prose, Shakespeare with his universality, and his realism, can  create drama from human emotion. This is particularly apparent in Hamlet. Ophelia’s portrayal is a passive, sexually vulnerable posture, linking to Hamlet’s association of “woman” with “fragility” and Laertes calling Ophelia a “document in madness”.

In his book, Madness and Civilisation, Foucault considers the links between water and madness. He discusses how drowning was associated with the feminine, female fluidity rather than male aridity.  If the drowning of Ophelia is considered, it represents the truly feminine death which is represented in many dramas of literature, art and life. Thus water becomes symbolic of the liquid woman whose eyes are drowned in tears as her body is slowly deprived of life.

It is Shakespeare’s representation of his female characters that is both interesting and thought provoking, especially in the way in which he represents Ophelia. As the character evolves it appears that she is defined by and wholly at the mercy of the male figures in her life. Although Hamlet is not totally to blame for the tragedy of the play, his innocence must be questioned if we consider the death of Ophelia. Hamlet’s attitude towards Ophelia swings from undying love and cruelty, as in Act 3 scene 1 “You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old shock but we shall relish of it: I loved you not”. This suggests that Hamlet used Ophelia as part of his revenge plan. In Act IV Scene v it becomes apparent that Ophelia can no longer cope with the dilemma and conflict she has had to endure. “Look at my flowers, there’s rosemary, that’s for remembering….pansies…. they’re for thoughts…..”, as melancholy descends.

Although we never get to see Ophelia in the stream we do have Gertrude’s description to Laertes of the drowned Ophelia in Act IV Scene VII in the brook, “There with fantastic garlands did she come, Of crow-flowers, nettles, daises and long purples……When down her weedy trophies and herself Fell in the weeping brook, her clothes spread wide….”

In his representation of Ophelia Millais clearly conveys her ethereal beauty. Millais’ painting is almost frighteningly realistic, with vivid colours of nature, her billowing dress and chaotically floating hair and flowers. This is how I always visualised Ophelia’s tragic death, in my imagination this work of art perfectly complements Gertrude’s description. Ophelia is shown holding her arms out in the shape of a cross, with the ivy in the painting symbolising Ophelia’s melancholy and decay.

Millais places Ophelia in exotic surroundings which are enhanced by bright colours and thick brush strokes to paint trees. Apart from the inert passivity of Ophelia, a closer look at her posture and face conveys the moment of death as an almost orgasmic ecstasy. The painting shows a clever use of symbolism and colour clearly represents Ophelia’s descent into madness and the tragic loss of her life, as she lies “Mermaid-like awhile they bore her up…… As one incapable of her own distress,…Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, Pulled the poor wretch from her melodies lay to muddy death”.

I have returned to this painting many times and see something new each time. The way in which Millais interprets and captures Ophelia’s expression as she is retreating into her madness, lying motionless and emotionless obvious of her fate, is pure understated drama. The painting is regulated in a way to highlight the natural details of the scene. The grassy water plants and the bed of weeds in which she floats look almost like a piece of exquisite embroidery. Driven insane by the murder of her father by Hamlet, Ophelia is portrayed singing in her madness as she drowns. To me this truly captures Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death.

When I first introduced my daughter to this wonderful picture she was drawn to the flowers and the wild life. Most of the flowers are included because they are mentioned in the play or are symbolic. Millais began the background in July 1851 at Ewell, Surrey with the main aim of close observation of nature. Millais observed these flowers growing wild over a period of five months, hence there are flowers that bloom at different times of the year. Looking closely at the painting there is a robin in the branches of the willow tree, which refers back to the line, “For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy”, which Ophelia sings as she loses her mind in Act IV Scene V. Birds are symbolic of the spirit. It could be a reference to Ophelia floating down the river and her spirit flying away. A poignant and beautiful creative work, a timeless tribute to Ophelia.

Once the background was completed Millais moved into his studio, where his model Lizzie Siddall was required to pose in a bathtub, with the water begin kept warm by lamps underneath, over a 4 month period. My daughter was fascinated by the story, and this started her own  fascination with English Literature as well as a love for art.

0a9a86fPamela Davenport is an experienced Higher and Further Education teacher, who has substantial experience working with children and young people in social care, community and educational settings. Pamela has undertaken 8 European visits, to Germany, Belgium, Spain and Finland, as part of the British Council’s Erasmus/Socrates Teacher Mobility Project. Writer on Social Care Values in Practice, Human Development Across The Lifespan, Working in a Multi-cultural Society, The Invisible Child, The Rights of Children and co-author for Teacher’s Handbook for HUGS Charity. She is a passionate lover of art and literature, in particular Shakespeare, the Romantics, the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, The Impressionists and Picasso.
Join her on twitter @pameladav3 and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pameladav