As everyone knows John Keats (1795 - 1821) was an English poet who spent a somewhat idyllic childhood in leafy Enfield. For myself this is where our similarities begin and end. Or do they?
Keats was born above a Pub. It is now called The Globe but was once named the Swan and Hoop Inn.
In a biography by Andrew Motion on Keats it is written that Keats's father was killed in a riding accident on his way to work as a publican at the The Swan and Hoop Inn in Moorgate, London.
By this account this accident occurred not very far from Ye Olde Cherry Tree public house in Southgate which lends itself to the idea of Keats's father having popped into Ye Olde Cherry Tree for a pint or two. Then stumbling outside onto his horse and shortly off again a few moments after having been thrown to the ground.
Did Keats's father visit the same hostelry as my forefathers? My parents and paternal grandparents before them met at Ye Old Cherry Tree public house in Southgate and established marital bonds soon after. This atavistic quality in the neighbourhood has not yet, however, born fruit in my life.
But perhaps some similarities persist after all. As a child I was invariably involved in some fight or other and usually with children much older than myself. On further reading I have learnt that Keats also had something of a pugilistic reputation in his early life. Not bad for five feet nothing with latent poetic sensibilities. So we both liked a punch up did me and Keats.
Many years later, Keats went to live with his elder brother George in Cheapside. From this base he had hoped to commute a shorter distance to Guy's hospital to train as an Apothecary but felt compelled to do what he had to do which was to write poetry. Keats was in his late teens during this period.
I began my first job at Companies House in Old Street near Moorgate. Within a few years I went on to work in another Government Department in Gresham Street near Cheapside. But this all happened well over one hundred and fifty years after Keats.
Keats's first published poem, 'To Solitude' - appeared in 'The Examiner' on 5th May 1816. Leigh Hunt was the editor who had lived in Southgate but later closer to the centre of London in Hampstead shared similar radical political liberal ideals as Keats. Indeed, Hunt's magazine was considered to be London's primary radical arts publication of that time.
O SOLITUDE! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,-
Nature’s observatory - whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
’Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.
Here Keats observes nature and binds it to his soul.
As time passed, however, Hunt and Keats found that the quality of their relationship depended more on the mutual appreciation of poetry than it did on their shared political views. Keats had many influential friends and Leigh Hunt was one of the first but he was not the last. In the late summer of 1817 Charles Brown, a Scottish Poet of independent means, met Keats. They travelled to many parts of Britain together. This experience shaped Keats who drew upon this experience to embellish his naturalistic observations. But it was Joseph Severn the Christian and painter who would nurse Keats as he lay dying in Rome in February 1821. Severn later painted the Keats of his imagination and memory. It is a stunning result and may be viewed at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
I have rarely had much inclination to write poetry and so it is hardly likely that I would have had a poem published but when I was about eighteen I did write and publish a magazine in London called 'Teenage Depression' which involved reporting and writing on music as well as interviewing some of the famous counter culture musicians of the time. Some thought it radical and sales did on occasion reach a thousand or so copies when it appeared which was often quartely. The magazine attracted some interest and went on for several years.
Occasionally, with some of my friends, we chanced to walk on Hampstead Heath not knowing or caring that this was where Keats had once been.
A few days ago I went with a friend to see the Keats Museum in Keats Grove, Hampstead. I imagined how Keats must once have lived. What Keats must have seen includes an old low to the ground fan like mulberry tree which still offers plenty of its delicious fruit. A scene viewed only a small distance away from the large window through which Keats once observed a natural and sublime world. Here he wrote another poem and must rank as one of his best and one of his last. It is -
SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
"Keats believed that the truths found in the imagination access holy authority."