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.
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!’
I 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.
At 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.
On 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.
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.
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 Quacksearlier this year. Historically accurate, it is highly recommended if you can get hold of a box set.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
I have often written of the relevance of the poet John Keats to readers in the 21st century – in fact, I am publishing a collection of pieces on that theme (mainly drawn from this blog and those posts written for The Wordsworth Trust) shortly. So when I was sitting ruminating on my rather odd sleep patterns of late, who should I once again turn to? You’ve guessed it…
‘Delicious drowsiness’ is a comment made by Andrew Motion in his fabulous biography, Keats, where he discusses a sonnet – To Sleep – written by the poet in April 1819 (a year in which his genius developed rapidly). It has always been a favourite of mine, as the language is, I think, delicious. Read it aloud, or under your breath and feel the words in your mouth, and on your lips…
O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness 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.
Technically Keats was working with, but not adhering strictly to, the Shakespearean sonnet form and the language used is gentle and the vowels long, creating that ‘delicious drowsiness’ Motion refers to. There is some debate about the meaning, and whether it refers to death, as well as or instead of, sleep. Certainly, the words ’embalmed’ and ‘casket’ can be suggestive of finality, as can the shutting of the eyes in the early lines; the still recent death of his brother Tom was on Keats’s mind throughout that great year of poetry. This sonnet can also be seen as reminiscent of some of the lines in Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale, particularly the sixth stanza:
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 mused 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!
Stillwouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.
Melancholy, but accepting of death; longing for a painless end, drifting off to the sound of the nightingale. Such is the end he would have wanted for his brother.
However, since my early teenage years and discovery of Keats as ‘my’ poet, I have always thought of this poem as a hymn to sleep as relief from anxiety and worry. My lifelong struggles with anxiety (well documented on this blog) continue, so I cling to lines such as ‘Then save me, or the passed day will shine/Upon my pillow, breeding many woes’ and ‘Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole’ as indicative of Keats’s ability to describe an eternal truth. How many of us have not experienced at least one night when sleep won’t come, and all the worries of our world come marching in, magnified and determined to disrupt our rest still further? We thump our pillow in frustration, toss and turn and long for something that will help us nod off – whether it be a book, hot drink or a sleeping tablet (that poppy with its ‘lulling charities’).
The beginning of the poem, rather than a reference to death, makes me think of that wonderful sleep of childhood, when a story is told, the light is turned out, and some magic makes our eyelids heavy and ensures any worries disappear.
Sleep is a time for healing. Physically it is vital to our health and well-being. It can also offer us a brief respite from the concerns of everyday life. It can be a joyful feeling, shared in the arms of someone we love. Observing it in our children can be, outside that natural sense of relief at the peace we craved after a long day, a deeply moving experience, highlighting the innocence of the young, and their (hopefully) carefree existence.
But in To Sleep, it is the last line that has always sent a shiver down my spine – of pleasure rather than fear. Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards/And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul rival those other great lines in the second stanza of Nightingale…
… for their sheer sensuousness, and the pleasure they offer the reader willing to speak them aloud (in private if you must!). Don’t you agree? Have you others to rival these?
There are a number of memorable descriptions of sleep, or the longing for it, in Keats’s poetry and it is, I think, something we would all do well to turn to at times when our own conscience ‘burrows’, like that mole, under our mattresses and denies us that longed for unconsciousness.
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?
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.
In 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.
I 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 filmBright 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!
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.
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……
It is hard to keep my blog up to date at the moment, with lots to write and things to think about, but I can never resist the opportunity to write about John Keats for the lovely Wordsworth Trust Romanticism blog. In the past two years I have written about how a particular Keats poem speaks to me, about his time at Guy’s Hospital undertaking medical training and a piece on the work of two young film makers taking ‘La belle dame sans merci‘ to new audiences.
This week I am on there again, looking at the ways in which the letters written by Keats offer inspiration and solace in difficult times, and how much of his work can be seen as ahead of its time in its relation to current psychotherapy practice. In his letters you can find expressions of what it means to be ‘mindful’, being accepted for who you really are, learning to cope with anxiety and depression, and finding inner strength. You find empathy and a willingness to walk in another person’s shoes before judging. To really understand how wonderful his poetry is, read his letters and get to know the man. His philosophy is at once melancholy and heartening.
Anyway, you all know how much I love his work and how appealing is his character. Take a trip over to The Wordsworth Trust blog and see how he wrote those inspirational quotes so much better than all those you find on your Facebook news feed.
I would also recommend you take a look at the other posts on Romantic subjects, posted regularly on the blog. They are fascinating and offer a terrific picture of the Romantic period. I am proud to be on there.
Before you read this post, I would love to know if, after hearing a little bit more about my next book, you can think of a fabulous, attention-grabbing title. The working title is ‘Death Disease and Dissection’ but it hardly covers it! If your title is chosen (just add it to the comments below the post) I will include you in the acknowledgements and ensure you get a free copy of the book….!!
I am actually working. Posting this is part of a proper writing day. Admittedly I have been sending lots of emails, arranging research trips and talking to people who have information that may be useful, but now I am getting words down on paper, and will continue to do so off and on for the rest of the day.
I am currently researching two commissions. The first is a book about medicine in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, focusing on young apothecary apprentices and their education to the required standard to undertake the role of surgeon apothecary, a career roughly equivalent to present day general practitioners. In a past post I have bemoaned my lack of progress, and inspiration, but something has changed in the past couple of weeks, and writing this is, to me, a proof of my commitment to the project.