by Byron Beynon
Montpellier is where Paul Gaugin brought Vincent van Gogh in an attempt to cheer-up the fading spirits of the Dutchman. Late in 1888 both men travelled by train from Arles to spend the day in this southern French city, they came especially to see the works of Gustave Courbet and Eugene Delacroix inside the Musée Fabre. Vincent would soon write a letter to his brother Theo about the visit in the second half of December 1888.
“Gaugin and I went yesterday to Montpellier to see the museum there and especially the Brias room. There are a lot of portraits of Brias, by Delacroix, Ricard, Courbet, Cabanel, Couture, Verdier, Tassaert, and others. Then there are pictures by Delacroix, Courbet, Giotto, Paul Potter,
Botticelli, Th. Rousseau, very fine. Brias was a benefactor of artists, I shall say no more to you than that. In the portrait by Delacroix he is a gentleman with red beard and hair, confoundedly like you or me…..” In the same letter he goes on to say that “ Gaugin and I talked a lot about Delacroix, Rembrandt etc. Our arguments are terribly electric, we come out of them sometimes with our heads as exhausted as an electric battery after it has run down.”
Alfred Bruyas was indeed a benefactor of the arts and friend to artists, and his narcissism for having dozens of portraits of himself commissioned was defended by Vincent. After the trip, tensions grew between the two artists.
Today visitors still enter the gallery, which houses paintings, drawings, sculptures, video library, and a fine selection of books and magazines. The building is settled near a wide esplanade with plane trees and fountains, in the heart of the city. During the seventeenth century it was a Jesuit college, then a mansion before being enlarged when Francois Xavier Fabre (1766-1837), a former pupil of David, donated in 1825 his collection of paintings to his native city, and by doing so gave his name to this tall, wise building. Inside there are paintings by Rubens, Berthe Morisot, and Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870), who was born into an affluent Montpellier family of wine-growers, but who was tragically killed in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. He began a career in medicine before turning to painting. He was, by all accounts, very well liked. He helped his impoverished artists friends, and in 1868 Bazille moved to a studio in Paris which he shared with Renoir.
Sadly he was killed during an attack on Beaune-la-Rolande. His father made the journey there to find the body of his son. For ten days he dug in the snow-covered battleground, eventually he found the body and hauled it back to Montpellier himself, on a peasant’s cart.
You can also see the portrait of CharlesBaudelaire painted in 1847 by Courbet, the poet with his black hair cut short, smokes a pipe, concentrating his mind on the pages of a book which rests on a table.
My first visit to France’s seventh largest city was in 1991, the following year I lived there for six months. I arrived by train, on the ultra-rapid TGV, to one of the country’s oldest protected stations,built in 1844. With a cosmopolitan population of over 270,000, a healthy mix of European youth, North African, American (there is an American library), many are students studying at the university, and the faculty of medicine, the oldest stillopen in the world. A papal bull, dated 26th of October 1289, announced the creation of the University of Montpellier, together with the medical, law, and arts faculties. Here the old, historical areas, with their narrow, shaded, antique streets exist in relative harmony with modern developments despite the angry graffiti and polluting traffic.
Since the 1960s which saw an increase in population, the council, led by Georges Freche decided to create a new neighbourhood called l’Antigone, a living area to provide accommodation and housing with relatively low rents for the people, it was the task of the Catalan architect, Ricardo Bofill, to extend this area of the city. Close by is the Polygone, a shopping centre with cafés, restaurants, and a plethora of shops.
One view of the city can be taken from the top of the Corum, a complex used for conventions and opera. To the north you can see the cathedral of St.Pierre, its twin, cylindrical towers stand like rockets about to be launched, also the orange-tiled roofs of the old quarter where on summer evenings, a young medical student named Felix Platter used to sit, playing his lute. He once wrote in his diary “I can see the town, spread out, as far as the sea, which I can sometimes hear in the wind”. If the Corum offered me a good view , the most popular meeting place for locals and visitors alike is the Place de la Comédie, with its fountain of the Three Graces. The three smiling girls embrace, gazing at people of all ages, passing by with their thoughts and with purpose.
Montpellier was first mentioned as far back as 985. By the year 1204 the crown of Aragon belonged to the city, eventually it was bought back by the French. It has witnessed the coming of Arab and Jewish scholars, a garrison, the French Revolution, the wine industry, a university, trams, underground parking and the new technology, pharmaceutical and research laboratories.
To get away from the centre I used to walk to the Peyrou with its eighteenth-century water tower, and the St.Clement aquaduct, the Arceaux, which brought water to the city. The cool air is reviving along with the panoramic views of the Mediterranean sea to the south and the mountains of the Pic Saint Loup to the north.
Nearby is the statue of Louis XIV, the Sun King, made of bronze it almost sank in Bordeaux harbour before arriving in Montpellier in 1718. There is also a botanical garden within easy walking distance from the Peyrou, created during the reign of Henry IV in 1593, with its exotic, ancient trees and plants. It is an oasis of green in the city. The poet Paul Valéry who had married the niece of the painter Berthe Morisot, enjoyed the peace here and wrote “we are going where you would go, if you were here, to the ancient garden where……all those people who meditate, worry or who talk to themselves go, as water goes to a river, and of course they meet up.”
In these gardens, one October afternoon, I met some students from the Netherlands. They were visiting Montpellier for a couple of weeks in order to improve their French, and were also doing a survey, asking questions about their homeland, the first question they asked me was to name at least one Dutch artist! “Vincent van Gogh “ I answered, “who came here by train with his friend and brother-in-art Paul Gaugin.”
Sources and books for further reading
The Letters of van Gogh edited by Mark Roskill (Fontana edition 1979)
The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe (Chatto&Windus 2006)
Impressionism by Tamsin Pickeral (Flame Tree Publishing 2007)
Byron Beynon lives in Swansea, Wales. Collections include Cuffs (Rack Press) and The Echoing Coastline (Agenda Editions). His selected poems appeared in 2018 (Bilingual: English/Romanian – published by Bibliotecha Universalis/Collectiile/ Revistei “Orizont Literar Contemporan”, translations by Dr Monica Manolachi, University of Bucharest)
By Byron Beynon
Raymond Garlick, who died in Cardiff on 19 March 2011, was an important and influential figure in support of Wales and Welsh writing in English. He had significant achievements as a poet, editor, critic, political campaigner and teacher. The last time I spoke to him was in March 2010 when he telephoned me about an article I had written on the letters he had received from the Nobel Prize nominated poet R. S. Thomas. Garlick had introduced me to the works of Thomas when he tutored me at Trinity College, Carmarthen. It was there that he also led me to discover David Jones, Idris Davies, Glyn Jones, Dylan Thomas, Alun Lewis, John Ormond and Leslie Norris. As a teenager, listening to him speak about these writers was an inspirational and illuminating experience. I will miss the conversations and meetings we went on to have over the years at his flat off College Road (along with some meetings in London, Cardiff and Swansea), as well as receiving his letters and cards. His beautiful italic handwriting was a fine aesthetic experience. Even R.S. Thomas, in his letters to Raymond, noted, ‘I hold your calligraphy up to Gwydion as an example’.
Garlick had fascinating recollections of other writers. He met Dylan Thomas a month or so before his death in 1953 and described him to me as gentle, modest, humble, a dedicated poet. He also spoke of Roy Campbell’s poetry as having a stronger influence on his own apprentice efforts than anybody else’s. Garlick was impressed by Campbell’s exact craftsmanship, his striking imagery, the almost crystalline quality of his verse.
It was because of Campbell’s poem, ‘Horses on the Camargue’, that Garlick went there himself. The emblem on the front of three of his books is the Croix de Camargue . Made of wrought iron, the original rises from a block of stone and stands in the village of Saintes Maries de la Mer by the church where the gypsies made their annual pilgrimage. It looks towards Africa, and it struck Garlick as being a symbol of Europe, together with the many other symbols that one can work out from its shape, the crossed trident and the anchor.
Garlick was conscious of how fortunate he had been to know two major writers, R. S. Thomas and John Cowper Powys, and to have been enriched by their friendship. He was aware of the strange coincidence that a book by each of them, The Stones of the Field and Obstinate Cymric, was published a short distance from where he lived in Carmarthen, at Keidrych Rhys’s Druid Press, and added that not every town sees the launch of a book by two great writers.
Garlick was fascinated by the shape and appearance of letters, words (examples of his shaped poems include ‘Marwnad’, ‘Capitals’ and ‘Vowels’) handwriting, carved and engraved inscriptions, samplers and alphabets. It came as no surprise, therefore, that on the cover of his Collected Poems was an alphabet by Eric Gill, carved by Lawrence Cribb. He thought The Engravings of Eric Gill, by Christopher Skelton, a marvellous book, and believed the fundamental mystery was that certain shapes can convey sounds, meanings and nuances of feeling. He found them beautiful as shapes, as well as carved, engraved, penned or painted letters.
As a child growing up in north-west London Garlick spent holiday visits at his grandparents’ house in Deganwy. It was there that a sense of place and freedom was awakened in him, which eventually brought about a commitment towards Wales. London suburbia was not for him.
By the 1940s he had met Brenda Chamberlain, the first painter he had ever known. He was a student at Bangor at the time, and he rented from her the studio half of Ty’r Mynydd, the cottage where she had lived with John Petts. In 1949, still only twenty-three, with no Arts Council funding, he became one of the founding editors of Dock Leaves (later renamed the Anglo-Welsh Review). The 1960s saw him teaching in the Netherlands. Again, the experience brought a new dimension to his poetry; it also brought further opportunities to travel in Europe. By 1967 he decided the time was right to return to Wales and he eventually became Principal Lecturer in Welsh Studies at Trinity College, Carmarthen.
I recall his enjoyment at seeing a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition in London during the 1980s. He had known many of the pictures from reproductions going back to childhood and had seen many of them at the Tate on previous visits. But to him it was magnificent to see them en masse. He wrote to me at the time, ‘I like so many of them because they are essentially literary and have their point of departure in a poem. Many of them too display wonderful technical skill, and a breathtaking sense of colour’. He thought the same two things characterised the Gwen John film shown on BBC2 in 1984 – beautiful landscape shots, posed like paintings, and interiors like Dutch still-life painting.
Reading through his poems gives one a sense of pleasure; the elegance of form, the style and structure are all there – richly shaped and tuned words, skilfully conducted. A man of elegant qualities and skills, Garlick played a central role in the advancement of Welsh literature in English.
I don’t know if it’s a bee or a hornet. Not being well-versed in the apiary sciences, I mean. Of course, the perspective might be all fucked-up (as it so often is these days) and it might be a far-off airplane or even a UFO. UFO’s are back in vogue, after all — the Chilean air force, the pilot over Wales (United Airlines, I think), the new sitcom about Roswell.
No. I think it’s a bee definitely — or it’s safest to think so, at least. The one about the thread, right? Where the guy pulls at a small, loose thread on his coat and by the end of the story the whole world has unraveled.
And bees pollinate. They bring life. Weaving drunkenly from stamen to pistil, flower to flower, spreading the life-giving force, their time here spent as angels of creation, floating on the breeze.
They don’t think.
They don’t have to.
I read about a woman once who became paralyzed it might have been Guillain-Barre and she had to consciously re-learn how to walk. That is to say, she had to coach herself: “Left foot up, swing, down; right foot up, swing, down.” She asserted that she felt like a robot. Can you imagine?
But: see. Not so for the humble bee. It simply follows the dictates of God like the wind or a stream or a mystic.
One time I thought that I was going to fly, too.
It lasted a long, long time — the time I thought that I was going to fly. It’s what kept me going, really, day after day after day after day. The thought — no belief — that I was going to fly someday, like a bee or an airplane or a UFO, even.
But then I realized that I wasn’t going to fly. And I came to understand how foolish I had been ever believing so in the first place.
Now, I walk with great precision: Left foot up, swing, down. Right foot up, swing, down. It’s better. More grounded.
And out the window, I notice the bee or whatever it was is gone.
Or perhaps it was never actually there.
It sits quietly in my closet the third closet the one I don’t really use coiled into itself clasped tightly. Perfect for the house of a cat or small dog. It served a short purpose on a small stage in a filthy corner of the City one time a long time ago — suburban suffocation and impassable boundaries and whatnot — but like my old soccer cleats (which I also still have for some reason) there it sits coiled like a calcified snake, waiting.
I remain certain.
Certain that it will someday uncoil again come back to life and reattach itself to a small dance presentation which balloons like a frog’s bellows to become a large dance production spilling out beyond the confines of the little picket fence patiently waiting in the closet that I almost never use.
(Dust seeping. Time creeping. Forget.)
There are extra pillows and blankets in there, as well (wrapped tight in plastic) for the guests who almost never come and pile upon pile of bubble wrap waiting patiently to wrap paintings which are sold or given away or sent to an exhibit. They never go anywhere — they sit stolidly on the walls their impastoed crevices capturing the falling motes and the bubble wrap unmoved waits on the shelf dowager above the floor where the little picket fence sits corkscrew.
I can’t place it.
This happens: things arrive with great purpose and some fanfare and suddenly they are but another piece of dusty infrastructure undergirding a life which is not uncoiling as it was certainly meant to.
I went out last night — without my picket fence — and time slowed almost to a standstill and I moved syrup through the East Village evening and entered an empty North African restaurant and sat at the blue-tiled bar all alone in the careening interior empty tables hopefully set and waiting and I listened and reflected and listened and sat and then I asked the bartender how long the song had been playing — it was by the French producer St. Germain.
I was certain that he and the empty restaurant and the world had joined my wave and that he would say “seventeen hours” or “forever and forever,” but he looked into his phone and said: “seven minutes and twenty four seconds.”
I nodded, as if I understood.
See, this is why we need picket fences: small or large or simply metaphorical. To contain the endless possibilities which might take us too far away, beyond the point of no return. The picket fence — dumb, solid, familiar —tells us what is “ours” and what isn’t; what is “here” and what is there.
Without the picket fence?
Well — a tiny grain of pepper in the vast stew of existence.
(New Jersey. A state filled with picket fences which is itself a picket fence.
A place so mundane so absolutely solid that it becomes a container to hold the necessary — and properly exclude the unnecessary.
A garden state enclosed and encompassing.
A place where biographies are written which move with certainty from birth though life to death.
A mystical metaphor hiding buried within an innocuous land mass
An introduction to his life and work by Byron Beynon
Travel north-eastwards from Swansea, along the A465, away from Dylan’s “ugly, lovely town”, on through the watchful Vale of Neath, by-pass the lyrical place names of Glynneath, Hirwaun, Cefn-coed-y-cymmer, and Merthyr Tydfil, continue until you turn onto the A469, follow it to the small town of Rhymney. Founded during the nineteenth century on iron and coal, it was by the early 1900s employing thousands of workers in the town’s collieries. It was there in 1905 the poet Idris Davies was born, and by the time he died in 1953 his poetry was respected and read by some of the most influential and distinguished poets of the twentieth century.
TS Eliot published Davies at Faber& Faber, writing about his work he noted “that they are the best poetic document I know about a particular epoch in a particular place, and I think that they really have a claim to permanence……. There is great integrity, I think, about his work, and his subject-matter is something that he knew from A to Z. If all poets knew their proper material as he did, there would be less futile verse in the world.”
WB Yeats, writing to Vernon Watkins in March 1938 wanted Davies’ poem “William Morris” set to music. He had read the poem in the magazine “Wales” during the autumn of 1937, and went on to say “If I were a millionaire I would pay somebody to set it to music and whenever I was visited by any person who knew Morris I would pay somebody to sing it to us.”
In January 1946, Dylan Thomas, in a radio broadcast on the BBC Eastern Service, and produced by John Arlott, read Davies’ poem “The Bells of Rhymney”, in a programme entitled “Welsh Poets”. Many years later the iconic American folk-singer Pete Seeger would set this poem to music, it was also recorded by the 1960s’ group The Byrds, by Judy Collins, The Alarm, and many others.
By 1973, Philip Larkin, as editor of “The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse” included two of Davies’ poems, “The Lay Preacher Ponders” and “High Summer on the Mountains” in the anthology. Since the early 1970s Gomer Press has brought out several editions of Idris Davies’ Collected Poems, keeping his work alive and available to the discerning reader. It is easy to understand why, the work is humane, dramatic, lyrical, sophisticated with a deceptive strength and a clear sense of rhythm.
In a robust introduction to the 2003 edition, Jim Perrin claimed that Davies is “ the most significant and original Welsh poet to have written in English during the twentieth century”. Perrin considers Davies’ two long poems “Gwalia Deserta” and “The Angry Summer” as being “among the most considerable achievements in Anglo-Welsh poetry, and fully worthy of inclusion alongside other great twentieth century long poems from marginalised cultures: Patrick Kavanagh’s “The Great Hunger”, Hugh MacDiarmid’s “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle”, Sorley MacLean’s The Cuillin”. “
Davies had left school at 14, worked first as a miner and was introduced to the poems of Shelley by a fellow-worker named Eddie Balman. He became acutely aware of social and political issues: “But the greatest of our battles/we lost in’26/ Through treachery and lying,/And Baldwin’s box of tricks./ I began to read from Shelley/ In afternoons in May,/ And to muse upon the misery/ Of unemployment pay.” (from his poem I was Born in Rhymney). 1926 was a crucial year for Davies, the year of the General Strike and the Great Coal Strike, a long period in the mining villages of South Wales of privation and suffering. He later wrote “Do you remember 1926? That summer of soups and speeches,/ The sunlight on the idle wheels and the deserted crossings,/ And the laughter and the cursing in the moonlit streets?” (from Gwalia Deserta).
He eventually escaped the mines and attended Loughborough College and the University of Nottingham, and by the end of 1932 had qualified as a teacher. He would teach in London for several years. In 1940 he lodged at 28 Haselmere Road, Crouch End, teaching at Hoxton. He kept a diary and wrote about the blitz- “Sept, 8. Sunday 11.45am ……. perhaps one of the worst nights London has ever known. About 500 Nazi planes bombed London’s dockland in the Eastern area, doing considerable damage and killing about 400 people, and injuring many more. A big fire blazed along the river for hours and the London sky was wonderfully lit-up.”The next day he wrote “I travelled by tube this morning……I have seen a good deal of damage today, most of it round Old Street Station. There’s a big crater in the street, and the Maternity Hospital at the corner was hit….Hoxton has suffered severely from the raids of the last three nights. Crouch End, so far, has escaped any severe damage,”
The writer Glyn Jones, a friend of Davies, wrote an essay about him in 1968, stating that “ He became a great lover of London, of Hampstead Heath, of Epping Forest and especially of the Charing Cross area with its second-hand bookshops. And he got to know many Welshmen then living in the capital, including Aneirin Talfan Davies, Keidrych Rhys and Dylan Thomas, whom he used to meet on Friday evenings.” Welsh writers frequented Griff’s Bookshop in Cecil Court, and in the early forties and early fifties it was kept by a man named William Griffith, who kept a representative stock of Welsh and Anglo-Welsh publications.
In 1938 Dent published his volume “Gwalia Deserta”, the first of four published volumes (the next three would be published by Eliot at Faber). During the period 1939-1945, he was evacuated several times with schools from London to Northamptonshire, Hertfordshire, and to Wales. It was during this time that he wrote “The Angry Summer”, a poem of 1926, expressing his feelings for his people and what they had endured. This long poem of 50 sections, along with”Gwalia Deserta” (36 sections), and his autobiographical poem “I was Born in Rhymney” plus several shorter poems such as “Waun Fair”, “Capel Calvin”, “Rhymney”, “London Welsh”, “Midnight”, “Hywel and Blodwen”, do I believe have that claim to permanence which Eliot noted.
By the early 1950’s he became seriously ill with cancer, and just a month before his death his Selected Poems was published by Eliot in March 1953. Eliot had already published Davies’ “The Angry Summer” (1943), and “Tonypandy and other poems” (1945). Idris Davies died at his mother’s house in Victoria Road, Rhymney in April 1953. Today there are no mines to employ the workers, time has brought many changes, but Davies’ “poetic document” remains. There is a plaque on the house in his memory, and opposite there’s the library which also remembers him with a plaque,and a display of some of his books, pens, photographs and the family Bible. Here then was a poet who had compassion for the plight of the people he had been brought up with, a poet to echo Eliot, who knew his subject matter.
In late 2016 Faber & Faber published “The Map and the Clock: A Laureate’s Choice of Poetry of Britain and Ireland” edited by Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke, which includes two of Idris Davies’ poems “The Bells of Rhymney” (poem xv from Gwalia Deserta) and “Mrs Evans fach” (poem 7 from The Angry Summer). His poetry is direct, it sings, and continues to be read and appreciated into the 21st century.
For further reading and sources on Idris Davies:
The Complete Poems of Idris Davies edited by Dafydd Johnston (University of Wales Press 1994)
Collected Poems (Gomer 2003)
The Dragon Has Two Tongues essays by Glyn Jones (Dent 1968)
Idris Davies of Rhymney a personal memoir by Islwyn Jenkins (Gomer 1986)
Poetry Wales – Idris Davies Special Issue (1981)
Byron Beynon lives in West Wales. His work has appeared in several publications including North of Oxford, Third Wednesday, Poetry Ireland, Chiron Review, London Magazine, Crannog and the human rights anthology In Protest (University of London and Keats House Poets). A former co-editor of Roundyhouse poetry magazine. Collections include Cuffs (Rack Press), Nocturne In Blue (Lapwing Publications) and The Echoing Coastline (Agenda Editions)
by Byron Beynon
The imperial Tiber flowed through a city haunted by history. A fresh veil of Roman air covered the face of the river which continued to run its antique course. No birds sang in the darkness of the early hours of a February morning; daylight had yet to appear as a small group of silent figures stood outside a house to the right of the Spanish Steps. The only sound was that of the boat-shaped fountain as it bubbled, a cool witness in the eternal city to the final journey of a young man no longer a living citizen of the world.
The young man who had died of tuberculosis (previously known as consumption) at the age of just twenty-five and whose body was taken to Rome’s protestant cemetery for burial was the poet John Keats, the youngest of the great Romantics and the first of them to die.
Just three years earlier in 1818 Keats had published (with Taylor and Hessey) his second book of poems entitled Enydmion with its now famous opening ‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever’. Robert Gittings saw Enydmion as an exploration into self-knowledge for Keats and which represented an essential stage of his growth to maturity. Andrew Motion (in his biography of Keats) also argued that the poet was promoting beauty not as an escape but as a medicine.
Keats’ first collection entitled POEMS (published by C. & J. Ollier) had appeared in March 1817. It contained thirty one poems, sonnets and epistles, including the skilful and subtle sonnet ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ and ‘On the Grasshopper and Cricket’ with its confident opening line “The poetry of earth is never dead” but the book made little impression, and was largely ignored by reviewers.
At this time Keats made several valued friendships among painters, poets and editors such as B. R. Haydon, John Hamilton Reynolds, Shelley and Leigh Hunt. Keats’ first published poem ‘O Solitude!’ appeared in Hunt’s The Examiner in May 1816.
The poet and novelist Thomas Hardy particularly enjoyed hearing an anecdote told to him by a Mrs Procter who when she was a young woman had been visited by Hunt. He had been accompanied by ‘a youth whom nobody noticed much’ and who remained in the background, Hunt casually introducing him as ‘Mr Keats’. Mrs Procter had during her long life met several writers including Wordsworth, Coleridge, De Quincey, Cooper, Longfellow, Thackeray, Dickens and Charlotte Bronte.
With the publication of his first book Keats became a dedicated poet. He worked for several months (between April and November 1817) on his second book; the epic, 4,000 lines long, Endymion. It was an important stage in his development, an apprenticeship essential to his growth as a poet and although flawed in parts, the disciplined effort seems to have brought Keats to the verge of his early artistic maturity. During the months he worked on the long poem he stayed on the Isle of Wight and at Margate, Oxford and London. Six months after he began Endymion at Carisbrooke he completed it at Burford Bridge in Surrey on 28 November 1818. A month before completing the poem he had written to his friend Benjamin Bailey about the epic he had nearly completed – ‘it will be a test, a trial of my Powers of Imagination and chiefly of my invention which is a rare thing indeed – by which I must make 4,000 Lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with Poetry’. Bailey had invited Keats to Oxford where the poet spent most of September at Magdalen Hall and where he wrote the third book of Endymion.
POEMS largely had been ignored by the critics and the reviewers seemed provoked that Keats dared to publish another volume. They attacked both his personality and work with spite and venom, notably in Blackwood’s magazine and The Quarterly Review. Blackwood’s tore it apart by saying ‘Endymion is not a Greek shepherd, loved by a Grecian goddess; he is merely a young Cockney rhymester, dreaming a phantasic dream at the full of the moon’. Nevertheless as R. S. White pointed out in his book John Keats – A Literary Life ‘it was clear that Keats had been fully accepted now in a network of writers and artists, consolidating a year in which he had published his first volume of poems and had written his second which already had a publisher’s agreement. As a professional poet, he was on his way, and he no longer considered medicine a serious option except in panicky moments of financial difficulty.’
Keats had been born in the parish of Moorfields, London on the 31October 1795, the son of Thomas Keats and Frances Jennings. Keats and his younger brothers George (who later emigrated to America) and Tom received a sound and enlightened education at John Clarke’s school at Enfield. His father was the manager of a livery stable who died as a result of an accident when Keats was only nine. His mother remarried and Keats, along with his brothers and sister Fanny, went to live with her parents in Enfield, later moving to Edmonton which were both rural areas at that time. A few years later, in 1810, his mother died of consumption. Her death affected him deeply, and ‘he gave way to such impassioned and prolonged grief … as awakened the liveliest pity and sympathy in all who saw him’. He was then at the age of fifteen apprenticed to a surgeon, and he later studied medicine at Guy’s Hospital. He passed his medical exams in 1816, however he never practised his profession. He had already begun to write poetry and his public poetry life spanned barely five years but the legacy of those few years is an astonishingly rich one.
Following publication of Endymion Keats went on a walking tour between June and August with his friend Charles Armitage Brown to the Lake District, Scotland and Ulster. It was during this tour that he wrote several new poems including ‘On Visiting the Tomb of Burns’, ‘To Ailsa Rock’, and ‘On Visiting Staffa’. He also climbed Ben Nevis but unfortunately was forced to break off his tour because of a severe chill and sore throat. On his return to London he found that his younger brother Tom was seriously ill. He nursed Tom devotedly through the last stages of consumption until Tom’s death at the end of 1818. During these intense years Keats also wrote a series of wonderful letters on poetry, many to his brothers and to his sister, which contain his most influential ideas. After Tom’s death, Keats moved in December 1818 to his friend Charles Brown’s house, Wentworth Place, on the edge of Hampstead Heath.
His neighbour at Wentworth Place was eigtheen-year-old Fanny Brawne, five years younger than the poet. Keats became enthralled by her, expressing his passion in many poems and letters. During 1818 and 1819 Keats entered his ‘Great Years’ when he produced one masterpiece after another including ‘Hyperion’, ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, all his great odes (including ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, ‘Ode on Melancholy’, ‘Ode to Psyche’, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’) and ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, ‘Lamia’ and ‘To Autumn’. All (except the ballad ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’) were published in his third and final book of poems in July 1820 under the title Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems.
During the winter of 1819 and 1820 Keats was ‘rather unwell’ and in February 1820 began to cough arterial blood. As a medical student he recognised immediately that this was his ‘death warrant’. The blow could not have been crueller because he had recently produced several of his greatest works and had also become engaged to Fanny Brawne. It was among the Brawne family that he spent his last weeks in England. By September 1820 Keats’ condition was desperately serious, and his friends believed that only the southern climate of Europe might cure him. A friend, the young painter Joseph Severn, sailed with him to Italy, first to Naples and then overland to Rome, where the two men took rooms on the Piazza di Spagna, near the Spanish Steps. Keats wrote no more poetry and after terrible suffering he died on the 23 February 1821. Those who attended the funeral at the Protestant Cemetery on the early morning of Monday, 26 February were Joseph Severn, The Rev. Mr Wolff the English chaplain at Rome who also conducted the service, two young English architects Henry Parke and Ambrose Poynter. Also, the artists William Ewing and Richard Westmacott, Dr Clark and Dr Luby. As the biographer Richard Holmes noted ‘Listening to the plashing Bernini fountain in the piazza below his window, Keats framed his own epitaph “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” His poetry has flowed out to generations of readers ever since’.
For further reading and sources on John Keats:
John Keats: The Complete Poems edited by John Barnard, Penguin Books 2006
Letters of John Keats: A selection edited by Robert Gittings, Oxford U.P. 1986
John Keats by Robert Gittings, Penguin Books 1979
John Keats by Nicholas Roe Yale, University Press 2012
Keats by Andrew Motion, Faber & Faber 1997
John Keats: A Literary Life by R. S. White. Palgrave/MacMillan 2012
The Romantic Poets and Their Circle by Richard Holmes, NPG Publications 2005
Thomas Hardy: Half A Londoner by Mark Ford, Harvard University Press 2016
Byron Beynon lives in Wales. His work has appeared in several publications including Poetry Ireland Review, Agenda, Plainsongs, North of Oxford, Poetry Pacific, London Magazine and the human rights anthology In Protest (University of London and Keats House Poets). Collections include Cuffs (Rack Press), Human Shores (Lapwing Publications) and The Echoing Coastline (Agenda Editions)