Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds

 

From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.

 

 

The changing of the seasons, visions of mists of mellow fruitfulness, fruit on the vine, ripe, plump; the dividend of summer coming literally to fruition in its last days – the words paint an evocative picture delighting the senses – warm lusciousness, wellbeing, poetic symmetry, with a feeling of tranquillity and transcendence. This is why I have always loved this poem. It is also considered by many to be Keats most untroubled work. Ancient mythology and the Hellenic world are put to one side in this most perfect pastoral poem. Many scholars of Keats are much better qualified than this writer to do a critical analysis of the poem. Therefore, I will not go further, but to quote Professor Stanley Plumly from his book ‘Posthumous Keats: a personal biography’– he captures the sublime vision of the poem so eloquently:

 

It is this specific Sunday’s view of a last–summers–day’s–beginning–of–autumn–day’s transition, season to season, and at once this vision of eternal autumn, its mists, its fullness, its gatherings, its drowsiness, and its warmth that sets it apart. It is the full cup emptied, filled then unfilled. The tone, therefore, is residually spiritual, elevated beyond the autumnal emotion.

 

This discussion will endeavour to set out how the poem came into almost full being in just a few days in September 1819. It will also explore the change of poetical style from the Miltonic (John Milton – Paradise Lost) to the purest English, greatly influenced, in my view, by Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770). Chatterton was a prodigious talent from a very young age writing his first meaningful poems at eleven. However, despite this, he was considered by many to be a literary forger/impostor-poet. Most famously, the creation of a medieval identity for himself in the name of a fifteen-century priest/poet called Thomas Rowley. He even invented Rowley’s medieval language. Nonetheless, he was a creative genius publishing poems, sketches, essays, songs…before his young life was cut short aged seventeen after a drug overdose – some say accidental, others not. At the time of his premature death he had published fifty-three pieces and secured a book contract.

The Death of Chatterton, by Henry Wallis, Tate Gallery, London

 

 

The ode ‘To Autumn’ was created by John Keats on Sunday 19th September, 1819. We know this exact date because on Tuesday 21st September Keats wrote from Winchester to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds “How beautiful the season is now. How fine the air – a temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking – Dian skies. I never liked stubble-fields so much as now – aye, better than the chilly green of the Spring. Somehow, a stubble plain looks warm, in the same way that some pictures look warm. This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.”

 

Keats had been in Winchester since mid August, save for a trip up to London on 10th to 15th September, writing to finish off a number of his works which would later be included in Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems published in June 1820 by Taylor and Hessey. Good progress had been made, with the exception of the troublesome Hyperion, which he had commenced in the autumn of the preceding year. He writes to Benjamin Bailey on 14th August confirming that he has been “…writing parts of my Hyperion…” however five weeks later, he tells John Hamilton Reynolds that he has given up with writing Hyperion, citing that it had too many Miltonic inversions in it, and he wanted to give his self up to other sensations. In this same letter to Reynolds he also mentions that he always somehow associated Thomas Chatterton with autumn. “He is the purest writer in the English language. He has no French idiom, or particles like Chaucer – ‘tis genuine English idiom in English words”.

 

Keats later in the same week again revisits Chatterton in a long journal letter to his brother George and wife Georgina, written over the period Friday 17th to Monday 27th September. The journal entry for Saturday 18th September he reverts to the subject of Thomas Chatterton – it must have been in the forefront of his mind – “The purest English I think – or what ought to be the purest – is Chatterton’s”. He also advises that as part of his daily routine he takes a walk everyday for “an hour before dinner”; he goes on to share some detail about the first mile of his walk; passing the cathedral, through the college-like squares, onwards to College Street, crossing some meadows…You can virtually imagine him on the later part of his walk, standing on the chalk hills of the Twyford Downs, looking down towards the stubble-fields, and the visual warmth that they exude. In almost exactly one year to the day, John Keats would be embarking of the last chapter of his life, onboard the Maria Crowther bound for Italy. In a little more than 500 days he would be dead.

 

It is well known that Keats greatly appreciated the work of Thomas Chatterton. Indeed he dedicated ‘Endymion – A Poetic Romance’ published in 1818 to the memory of Chatterton:

INSCRIBED,
WITH EVERY FEELING OF PRIDE AND REGRET
AND WITH ‘A BOWED MIND,’
TO THE MEMORY OF
THE MOST ENGLISH OF ENGLISH POETS EXCEPT SHAKSPEARE,
THOMAS CHATTERTON.

 

Many scholars have looked at Keats’s published poetry to see influences of Chatterton. The acclaimed biographer of Keats Robert Gittings notes certain ad-hoc similar aspects of style in his earlier work, especially in the more tranquil and simple poems, but nothing that substantive. However, the turning point falls on that September weekend on 1819 when ‘To Autumn’ was written. Gittings writes: “To Autumn’ is the only later, major poem of Keats profoundly influenced by Chatterton, with greater debts that critics have realised. Besides the third minstrel’s song from Aella, other relaxed, spontaneous melodies of Chatterton’s perhaps also flooded Keat’s mind as he gave up the ‘artful or rather artist’s humour’ associated in his mind than with Milton and enjoyed temporary relief from tension.”

 

George Keats ended up with the only surviving fair copy of ‘To Autumn’ and in 1839 he gave it to a Miss Barker (late Mrs Ward) of Louisville, Kentucky. She gave it to her grand-daughter in 1896 who bequeathed it to the poet, Keats biographer and avid collector Amy Lowell, and henceforth to the Houghton Library at Harvard where it remains. Written on two pages, it is said that due to age, rather appropriately, the paper has taken on an oak-brown autumnal hue.

 

 

Ian Reynolds is a retired mechanical engineer who lives in Oxfordshire. He has a personal interest in those associated with the Keats-Shelley Circle, and poets of the Romantic period, especially John Keats. He is unaffiliated. Ian’s other interests include reading, listening to music, particularly rock and jazz, road cycling and wine.

 

References/Further reading

Groom, Nick. 2004″Chatterton, Thomas (1752–1770), poet.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography .

Plumly, Stanley, Posthumous Keats: a personal biography, (2008), New York: W.W. Norton

Gittings, Robert. “Keats and Chatterton” Keats-Shelley Journal 4 (1955): 47-54.

 

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve

 

Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus:

As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or feeling of classical poetry or classical history, could have stooped to profane and vulgarise every association in the manner which has been adopted by this son of promise’.

Among Keats’s contemporaries, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron recognized Keats’s potential as a poet but not his execution. Years later, his mechanics in ‘Endymion’, or lack thereof, continue to be the subject of debate. What’s more, in the context of the early 19th century, education, class and/or political affiliation (Keats’s Tory sympathies had been well-known) often affected reviewers’ judgment. For example, Lockhart’s vitriol continued: “Mr Keats has adopted the loose, nerveless versification, and Cockney rhyme of the poet of Rimini”. Nor did it help that Keats undermined his own credibility by publicly acknowledging ‘Endymion’ should not have been published. In essence, the odds were stacked against him.

Given the period, when ‘Mad’ King George III’s reign had begun to wane and the upstart colonies had emerged victorious, the negative criticism could also have come from the strenuous objection to the racial overtones in ‘Endymion’ Book IV. Endymion, the shepherd king and poem’s hero has spent the previous three books lamenting his love and loss of the moon goddess and poetic muse, Cynthia. His long journey toward reclaiming her has left Endymion without hope: “What is there in thee, Moon! that shouldst move/My heart so potently?” (Book III). In Book IV however, he meets a mortal woman with whom he falls in love: “My sweetest Indian, here, /Here, will I kneel, for thou redeemest hast/My life from too thin breathing…”.

There are several references to this woman’s cultural heritage, which must have rattled those who considered interracial love taboo. How must the gentry, including the nouveau noble, Lord Byron, have responded to such an overt description? (By contrast, Lord Byron’s lyrical work, Hebrew Melodies of 1815, later set to Isaac Nathan’s songs, was well-received by conservative pundits, though the Jewish connection would be suppressed by future publishers.) Keats extricates himself from these treacherous waters when, during the dénouement at the end of the poem, the Indian woman is revealed to be Cynthia in disguise. Yet, even the suggestion of such a relationship would have sparked controversy, given the fact that mythological figures were conventionally depicted as white-skinned:

The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis
Jacques-Louis David, 1818

 

Is this a revisionist viewpoint? I think not; the British colonies were a means to an end—trade, commerce, wealth, imperial dominance—but to accept actual intermingling with the indigenous people would be tantamount to treason, and would continue to be so into the 20th century. For example, during the waning days of Queen Victoria’s reign, her friendship with an Indian-Muslim attendant, Abdul Karim, would evoke outrage.

The greatness of ‘Endymion’ lies in Keats’s willingness to experiment, and make a radical departure from poetic convention by his choice of heroine. Some contemporary critics lambasted the poetical mechanics and the verbiage, but others – including Byron – realized that the poem was challenging both the subjective and technical boundaries of verse. How sublime, then, that in ‘Endymion’ John Keats’s Shepherd King exemplified Romantic ideals—a reverence for love, the individual, as well as beauty in all its colours.

 

My Indian Bliss!
My river-lily bud! one human kiss! (Book IV)
‘Golpa Ma’ watercolor – Rare Books of India

 

 

Writer Wendy Shreve graduated from Smith College and received her Master’s Degree in English at the University of Montana. Her poetry, short stories, novels and articles have been published on-line as well as in print. Wendy’s film blog, www.featuringfilm.com, has a local, national and international following.

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone

 

A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his daughter to read by tracing the letters of her mother’s name on the gravestone, that Mary feels connected to her mother through her writing (in one scene holding A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), and that silhouettes and a small portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft are prevalent in William Godwin’s bookshop and home. The film depicts Mary Shelley as a woman author of fierce independence and ambition, confronting and overcoming the obstacles of a man’s world of writing, learning, publishing, and entitlement (social and sexual). Frankenstein, the film proposes, was Mary’s stinging commentary on that world, where men are “monsters” and young women such as Mary and her stepsister Claire Clairmont are discounted. As Claire says through tears after copying the manuscript of Frankenstein, she identified with the creature’s struggles and expected many more would, and so Mary “must” publish the novel.

 

Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley. Image: IFC Films

Al-Mansour’s film hits its emotional core once Mary drafts Frankenstein, presented in a series of images tracking Mary’s recognition of the destructive behaviour of men such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, interspersed with images of handwritten words that form and dissolve as Mary’s voiceover relates parts of the creature’s account. Here, the images and voiceover link Mary and the creature, reinforcing the film’s premise that the novel is the culmination of a young woman’s life of abandonment and contending with prejudice owing to her sex. When Percy has read that first draft, he proclaims its genius, but then wishes the creature to be “perfect,” an “angel,” to show humanity hope — a suggestion Mary refuses, replying that their lives are a mess, that she is a mess, which is reality. Percy relents, admitting Mary’s way is better. Overall, the sequence is absorbing, as a speculation upon the novel’s genesis and as an idea of the creature expressing the experience of women, especially women artists. I am tempted to think of Jane Austen’s observation in Northanger Abbey that women novelists were “an injured body” in the early nineteenth century ….

 

Regarding the context of the early nineteenth century, those very familiar with the period and either of the Shelleys in particular will notice the film’s creativity regarding chronology. When Mary and Percy first meet conflates different times: in Scotland, when she is sixteen and he twenty-one, they tell each other, which would be a year later than the proper year of 1812; Percy was visiting William Godwin in 1814, the year that saw him and Mary elope to France and Switzerland, but the film portrays all these events as taking place in the same year, mere months or weeks apart. The film’s own timeline produces additional historical anomalies. Claire Clairmont goes to a performance of Byron’s Werner, which he will not write until 1822. While the months during 1816 spent with Byron in Geneva was Mary and Percy’s second trip to Europe, the film makes it their first, and they are childless though their son William was born in January. (In fact, the film collapses their first three children into the birth and death of Clara, which actually came after Mary finished and then published Frankenstein, not before. It also skips over the months in Bath when the Shelleys returned to England, where Mary wrote much of Frankenstein and Claire gave birth to Allegra Byron in early 1817.) Moreover, Percy’s dialogue includes lines from his works, such as “the imagination is the instrument of moral good,” said in a church where he and Mary have their first kiss, though he composes A Defence of Poetry in 1821.

I mention these chronological glitches partly to warn those who might identify them and, perhaps, be pulled out of the film. On one hand, I am curious why Al-Mansour and the writer, Emma Jensen, made such choices. On the other hand, the film never definitively sets us in a specific year or month, which, upon reflection, allows it to fashion a sense of timelessness, or, rather, of not being strictly bound by time. We have impressions of Mary and Percy, which render them as both of their historical moment and relevant to our own. Mary’s struggles as a woman and author, therefore, continue across two hundred years, and her creature remains a voice for those denied the “compassionate touch” (as William Godwin says in the film) of the world.

However, the film as a whole feels anticlimactic. This feeling is highlighted by the scene of the nightmare that spurred Mary to write Frankenstein. It involves a mere several seconds of a haughty man touching a rod to the creature’s arm, the creature otherwise covered by a white sheet — not the harrowing, vivid “reverie” recounted by Mary Shelley in her introduction to the 1831 edition of the novel. Although the film finishes strongly, with Percy publicly acknowledging Mary’s authorship of Frankenstein at a gathering of men in William Godwin’s bookshop, it seems never quite to find the full, radical force of the “fire” in Mary’s “soul.” There are missed opportunities to delve further into the fraught months of the novel’s composition, when Mary faced scandal, upheaval, and loss.

Bel Powley, Elle Fanning, and Douglas Booth as Percy Shelley

 

Still, the film is carried by a compelling performance from Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley. Tom Sturridge is magnetic as Lord Byron, and Bel Powley gives her Claire Clairmont engaging depth as a woman even more discounted than Mary. The cinematography is lush, bold, and attentive, particularly with interiors such as the bookshop, the lodgings in St. Pancras, and the villa in Geneva. In the end, we have a film that certainly reminds us Mary Shelley at eighteen and nineteen years old shaped modernity, though it perhaps leaves wanting a richer, more rigorous portrait of how she did so.

 

Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, written by Emma Jensen. Starring Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Tom Sturridge, Stephen Dillane, Ben Hardy. USA, May 2018; UK, July 2018.

Michael Johnstone teaches at the Department of English, University of Toronto. His Twitter ID is @mikejwrites  

 

 

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