‘Keatswatch’ – a natural history game

by Gareth Evans

 

Let’s play a short game. Imagine you are sitting silently in a darkened room waiting for a small group of early Romantics to enter. First come Dorothy and William Wordsworth. Their footfalls are contrasting in tone, although from the many miles of walking they have undertaken together they are curiously co-ordinated. Something akin to dancing partners. Their breath is light but full; slender bodies, well exercised. Next Coleridge lumbers in, he is making the floorboards creak. Keats memorably described Coleridge’s gait as at an ‘alderman-after-dinner pace’. We can conjure up a phlegmatic wheeze in his breath.

You are in the role of John Gough (1757-1825) who had lost his sight at the age of three from smallpox – but Coleridge is making the introduction:

The everyway amiable and estimable John Gough of Kendal is not only an excellent mathematician but an infallible botanist and zoologist … As to plants and flowers the rapidity of his touch appears fully equal to that of sight and the accuracy greater, I almost envied him for the purity and excellence of his own nature.

It was claimed that Gough came to know almost every plant within twenty miles of his Kendal home by the touch, taste and smell. His knowledge of the local fauna was as thorough: “By touch, he corrected the mistakes of the most experienced sportsmen, with regard to the birds or vermin which they had killed”.

John Gough, ‘The Blind Philosopher’. Kendal Museum

 

Wordsworth depicted the experience of being in Gough’s presence in The Excursion (vii 482, 1814)

… his whole countenance alive with thought,
Fancy, and understanding;

Predictably, perhaps, Coleridge’s account of the Gough’s almost preternatural attentiveness is the most vivid and unsettling:

Good heavens it needs only to look at him, Why his face sees all over! It is all one eye!

Omniana, ‘The Soul and its Organs of Sense’, 1812).

Gough was able to identify friends before they spoke by the characteristic resonances of their breathing. He could determine the height of a stranger from their first utterance by the resonance of their breathing (presumably even if in a sitting position). Gough’s paper, ‘Investigation of the Method whereby Men judge, by the Ear, of the Position of Sonorous Bodies, relative to their own Persons’ was published in Manchester in 1802, and reviewed in Francis Jeffrey’s The Edinburgh Review in April 1803.

 

Gough specialised in preparing pupils for university entrance in mathematics, and this is one of his most palpable legacies. His successful students included William Whewell later Master of Trinity College, Cambridge who is one of the people credited with establishing the term ‘scientist’ where the existing ‘natural philosopher’ was no longer meaningful. How well known was Gough outside his own ‘parish’? In a letter of 14th September 1813, Dorothy Wordsworth encouraged Catherine Clarkson to join her and William in the Lake District, citing John Gough as a potential tutor for her son. She omits any mention of his condition so one can assume that he was well enough known to need no explanation from her. Among the ‘reading classes’, Gough’s celebrity would have been widened by the successive editions of William Withering’s A Botanical Arrangement of all the Vegetables Naturally Growing in Great Britain (later editions; A Botanical Arrangement of British Plants…). Tremendously popular, the publication was rigorous and definitive enough to become a textbook for medical students. Keats quoted from it as a source of social banter, his publishers punned on the author’s name with each other and the Wordsworths bought a copy when they moved into Dove Cottage.

 

In the second edition (1787) the ‘blind botanist’ is mentioned as something of a sensation in an otherwise sober, if not austere, textbook. By the 4th edition (1801) Gough is listed as one of its botanical correspondents without any remark or further explanation. That the flora of the Kendal is well represented in Withering is due to the work not only of John Gough but also his large family. As with some of the figures mentioned here, he was the centre of a supportive family group. One of his sisters (Dorothy Gough b. 1768) regularly climbed 600 feet to take the weather readings for her brother’s comparative meteorological studies. Gough also formulated theories on the formation of clouds and seasonal winds.

 

Gilbert White was a contemporary whose Natural History of Selborne was particularly admired by John Hussey, Keats’s publisher. As the seasons went by White describes within both his garden and locality, weather, birds, quadrupeds, ‘vegetables’, insects and ‘vermes’. White, like Gough, attempted to be systematic in observing for each year such events as which birds are first and last are heard singing or which particular species bloomed.

 

Gilbert White’s interesting garden has been restored, but we have to imagine Gough’s plot. We do know that it was stocked with gathered wild plants from the varied landscape within twenty miles of his house. In this way, the appearance was similar to Keats’s heath-side garden in Hampstead with its combination of garden flowers and wild plants encroaching on each other. Sitting in his garden, Gough could not see his plants but knew what was there. Attentive to everything, his knowledge of nature was never superficial, the seasonality of the day, wind direction, the sounds of birds and other ‘sonorous bodies’ entering and leaving into the garden – including people. Of course, there is no evidence at all that Keats ever met Gough, although Keats’s route did pass through Kendal on his walking tour in June 1818. By Charles Brown’s own account (Walks in the North, 1840) they could be avid listeners to gossip and tales of local characters.

 

Let’s take up our game again. We will make Keats sit next to Gough at his evening garden bench. Gough would have got the measure of the poet’s five-foot frame and be aware of Keats making his self-confessedly awkward bow.  The poet in his turn had the facility to lose himself in what was before him, to move his focus from himself and enter into the existence of his subject. Keats would have been naturally drawn by Gough’s modes of perception. So let us make Keats’s face tilt up slightly while his eyes, ‘gloom-pleas’d’ are ‘embowered from the light’:

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

 

The particular tone of this stanza from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ has always struck me. By occluding his sight in this passage Keats identifies with the condition of the reader by highlighting the use of his imagination and memory. If he is successful in working this trick, in drawing us in, Keats is seeing less so we may see more. With Gough-like attentiveness, he detects the smell of the grass and woods of the ‘seasonable month’. With a natural history authenticity, the fast-fading violets and the coming musk-rose seem very precise observation. In reality, we know they are also accurate of the conditions of the warm spring in 1819. And then there is the ‘murmurous haunt of summer flies’. Like its subject, this phrase has the potential to be a slight irritant to our imagination with connotations of nuisance and decay for some. However, we can have both the euphony and meaning of the passage if we assume these are species which are collectors of nectar and pollinators of flowers. Their murmur has the potential to be as sweet and suggestive as bees humming ‘about globes of clover and sweet peas’. If this is so, then this last line brings a moment of hard-won stillness in a far-ranging poem.

From John Gough’s ‘Remarks on the Summer Birds of Passage’ (1812).

 

We will never completely discern between Keats’s undeniable first-hand experience of nature and his book-learning. For someone of Keats’s education and social circle, the culture of natural history was all around. It is possible to establish several degrees of closeness to this culture, but here is a single instance. When he was at Guy’s, the botany course was offered by the surviving business partner of much-admired William Curtis and continued his form and content. We know Curtis as a botanist, but he would probably have seen himself as a natural historian. A name associated with such a diversity of interests that in our own age of specialisms it can seem almost wilful. Curtis’ notable works include A Short History of the Brown-Tailed Moth published, like other works of Curtis’, by Benjamin White, Gilbert’s brother and publisher of Selbourne.

 

Frontispiece of Curtis’ ‘Flora Londoniensis’ (1802). Wellcome Collection

 

David Allen (The Naturist in Britain; a social history, 1976) has described two contrasting types of naturalist of this time, although the divisions are not watertight. One is familiar to us as it was to become the predominant natural history culture of the Victorian era. This type of naturalist was one who ‘only stops to collect’, aspiring to fill a fernery or glass case. Keats enacted this behaviour three years earlier on his student field trip, also at Hampstead Heath. Collected into a bunch, or posy, their identification was formally verified at the end of the day. At this point, students were encouraged to make a personal reference collection of dried samples, a herbarium, from their picked flowers. In reality, Keats can be said to have preserved his herborising experience in the first section of ‘I stood tip-toe on a little hill’ – ‘What next? A tuft of evening primroses’ – a work that was started at the top of the Heath in the summer of 1816.

 

In contrast to this creation of a museum collection, however, there is the evocation of a muse. This is quite a different type of natural history study, one that loses itself in observation, exercising some empathy with the subject and its context. You will recognise it as part of our modern culture of nature-writing, that sees itself as a literary descendant of Gilbert White’s Selbourne. David Allen perceptively remarked on the sustained popularity of Gilbert White’s work.

the testament of the Static Man: at peace with the world and with himself, content with deepening his knowledge of his one small corner of the earth, a being suspended in a perfect mental balance. Selbourne is the secret, private parish inside each one of us.

 

Allen’s description mirrors the Hampstead Keats of 1819. The Ode’s middle stanza creates a sense of stillness and an intimacy with the reader, utilizing this specific susceptibility for poetic purposes. If you trust your available senses, a basic source of assurance is the direct observation of yourself and your surroundings. It is a minimal certainty in a world of doubts. The Ode begins with a hint of a clinical record whose subject is the poet, complete with allusions to dose and time. The Ode’s middle stanza details his surroundings as embedded natural historian. As we have seen, impaired senses do not prevent one from being informed of the specifics of a place and the complexities of the greater natural world.

 

A Natural History of English Singing-Birds. (1731 – 1738) Eleazar Albin

 

When Keats had expressed his disappointment at the petty behaviour of a Hampstead parson – of whom Keats clearly expected better – in a letter to George and Georgiana Keats in February 1819, he refers to Comte de Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière and its ancient model, Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia. There should be a special place for people like the parson, says Keats, among Buffon’s list of real and fantastical monsters. The parson’s offence was to make no attempt to examine his own behaviour, unlike Keats who did not shy away from analysing his emotions and creations, not least in this Ode. In its play of careful self-observation we have a lean natural history of Keats the poet, with allusions to observation, diligence, questioning and erudition. That might not be enough. Although we are not all poets, we may all recognize its anxieties, doubts, admissions, weaknesses, aspirations and questioning of identity.

The middle stanza is over. The consolations of Keats’s poetic exercise of natural history do not last long. Nevertheless, in the Ode’s last stanza Keats again takes on the role of an observer that is both objective and credible. He is Gough’s subject “who may judge, by the Ear, of the Position of Sonorous Bodies, relative to their own Persons” as he maps the bird’s song as it gradually moves away. But the certainties of the empathetic, but detached, natural historian Keats rejects despite its attractions to both author and reader. He adopts the greatest of uncertainties, that of the loss of trust of all one’s senses, but he has won the clarity to do that with no doubt.

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

Game over.

 

Gareth Evans writes articles on the history and culture of plants and their use (garethhevans.com). He worked in, and with, botanic gardens for 16 years, specialising in the history of plants and medicine. Recent Highlights include: ‘Seeds of Inspiration’, Linder Memorial Lecture, Beatrix Potter Society, March 2018, and ‘Keats’s Flight from the Vegetable Monster’, a paper at the 4th Bicentennial John Keats Conference 1817.