Today is generally taken to be the birthday (1795) of John Keats, one of the great English Romantic poets. There’s a little confusion about the actual day because his family celebrated his birthday on the 29th but the baptismal register records his date of birth as the 31st, and this is generally accepted as the correct date. I will too. Keats holds a very special place for me because my form master in South Australia made me learn To Autumn by heart when I was 11 so that I could stand and recite it on command when special visitors, such as school inspectors, visited the classroom. My voice had not yet broken, so I had a clear treble with a strong English accent. I was also quite content to show off. My teacher, Mr Summerton, who was a complete pig, not only made me recite the poem endlessly, he also made a tape recording of me – very special for 1962. I remember marveling at hearing the sound of my own voice for the first time. I’ll give the pig credit for that, and for a lifetime’s pleasure with the ode. Just last year I had the immense satisfaction of spending many hours exploring the poem with my students. I think they understood its power by the time I was done with my rhapsodic lectures – who knows?
I’ll explore a little bit of Keats’s biography, but you’ll have to do most of that for yourself if you are interested. Then I’ll rhapsodize a bit more about his words before my recipe of the day. Keats was born in Moorgate in London. He was the eldest of four surviving children; his younger siblings were George (1797–1841), Thomas (1799–1818), and Frances Mary “Fanny” (1803–1889) who eventually married Spanish author Valentín Llanos Gutiérrez. His father first worked as a hostler at the stables attached to the Swan and Hoop Inn, an establishment he later managed, and where the growing family lived for some years. Keats believed that he was born at the inn, but there is no evidence to support his belief. The Globe pub now occupies the site. He was baptized at St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate, and sent to a local dame school as a child.
His parents were unable to afford Eton or Harrow, so in the summer of 1803, he was sent to board at John Clarke’s school in Enfield, close to his grandparents’ house. The small school had a liberal outlook and a progressive curriculum more modern than the larger, more prestigious schools. In the family atmosphere at Clarke’s, Keats developed an interest in classics and history, which would stay with him throughout his short life. The headmaster’s son, Charles Cowden Clarke, also became an important mentor and friend, introducing Keats to Renaissance literature, including Tasso, Spenser, and Chapman’s translations. The young Keats was described by his friend Edward Holmes as a volatile character, “always in extremes”, given to indolence and fighting. However, at 13 he began focusing his energy on reading and study, winning his first academic prize in midsummer 1809.
In April 1804, when Keats was 8, his father died from a skull fracture, suffered when he fell from his horse while returning from a visit to Keats and his brother George at school. Thomas Keats died intestate. Frances remarried two months later, but left her new husband soon afterwards, and the four children went to live with their grandmother, Alice Jennings, in the village of Edmonton. In March 1810, when Keats was 14, his mother died of tuberculosis, leaving the children in the custody of their grandmother. She appointed two guardians, Richard Abbey and John Sandell, to take care of them. That autumn, Keats left Clarke’s school to apprentice with Thomas Hammond, a surgeon and apothecary who was a neighbor and the doctor of the Jennings family. Keats lodged in the attic above the surgery at 7 Church Street until 1813. Cowden Clarke, who remained a close friend of Keats, described this period as “the most placid time in Keats’s life.”
From 1814, Keats had two bequests, held in trust for him until his 21st birthday: £800 willed by his grandfather John Jennings (about £50,000 in today’s money) and a portion of his mother’s legacy, £8000 (about £500,000 today), to be equally divided between her living children. It seems he was not told of either, since he never applied for any of the money. Historically, blame has often been laid on Abbey as legal guardian, but he may also have been unaware. William Walton, solicitor for Keats’s mother and grandmother, definitely did know and had a duty of care to relay the information to Keats. It seems he did not. The money would have made a critical difference to Keats’s expectations. Money was always a great concern and difficulty for him, as he struggled to stay out of debt and make his way in the world independently.
Having finished his apprenticeship with Hammond, Keats registered as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital (now part of King’s College London) and began studying there in October 1815. Within a month of starting, he was accepted as a dresser at the hospital, assisting surgeons during operations, the equivalent of a junior house surgeon today. It was a significant promotion, that marked a distinct aptitude for medicine; it brought greater responsibility and a heavier workload. Keats’s long and expensive medical training with Hammond and at Guy’s Hospital led his family to assume he would pursue a lifelong career in medicine, assuring financial security, and it seems that at this point Keats had a genuine desire to become a doctor. He lodged near the hospital, at 28 St Thomas’s Street in Southwark, with other medical students, including Henry Stephens who became a famous inventor and ink magnate. He did eventually complete his training. In 1816, Keats received his apothecary’s license, which made him eligible to practise as an apothecary, physician, and surgeon, but before the end of the year he announced to his guardian that he was resolved to be a poet, not a surgeon.
You can worry about the struggles he had with money, career, ambitions, and poetry on your own if you want. I’ll just focus on 1819, his annus mirabilis, sometimes called the year of 6 odes, which was to cement his reputation as a poet, although not substantially until after his death in 1821. He died thinking that his poetry would soon be forgotten, even though he had achieved some fame, his critics were decidedly mixed in their opinions of his work during his lifetime. Keats wrote the first five odes, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, “Ode on Indolence”, “Ode on Melancholy”, “Ode to a Nightingale”, and “Ode to Psyche” in quick succession during the spring at his home, Wentworth Place near Hampstead Heath, and he composed “To Autumn” in September after an autumnal evening walk near Winchester. The first five are considered now to have a kind of thematic unity, and contain some immortally memorable lines:
“Beauty is truth—truth beauty / that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know” (Grecian Urn)
“To Autumn” shifts the emphasis of the first five from spring to autumn and, hence, from budding life to death. Keats perhaps knew he was dying (he died one year later), and the poem speaks to the need not to dwell on the sorrows of the end of life. Look at the lines that begin the 3rd stanza:
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
Endings are as splendid as beginnings. What did I know about this stuff when I learnt the poem at age 11? Absolutely nothing. But last year when I tried to teach the poem to Italian students the images resonated much more with me. At 66 I am in the autumn of my life and it is a very satisfying time for me. I love the autumn of the year the best of all seasons, and I love the autumn of my life. Everything planted in the spring is ripe and ready to harvest. Here’s the full poem:
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 cider-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.
The consciously archaic and arcane vocabulary was a bit much for my Italian students, and, I confess, is a bit much for me as well. Do you know how long it takes to explain what “thatch-eves” are to non-native speakers? That’s all right for me, but the “thy’s” and “thou’s” grate a little. At least I got to explain that English used to have an informal second person singular.
Before his doctor insisted on a Spartan diet, Keats was quite the glutton. Here’s an excerpt he wrote to Mrs Wylie, his brother’s mother-in-law, from Inverness on August 6th 1818, when he was on a walking tour of Scotland:
I have got wet through, day after day—eaten oat-cake, and drank Whisky—walked up to my knees in Bog—got a sore throat—gone to see Icolmkill and Staffa; met with wholesome food just here and there as it happened—went up Ben Nevis, and—N.B., came down again. Sometimes when I am rather tired I lean rather languishingly on a rock, and long for some famous Beauty to get down from her Palfrey in passing, approach me, with—her saddle-bags, and give me—a dozen or two capital roastbeef Sandwiches.
This is one of the earliest references to sandwiches in English, and possibly the first to roast beef sandwiches (one word “roastbeef” is correct for the time). Thinking in terms of 12 or 24 at one go boggles the mind. Thinking about roast beef sandwiches is making me hungry as I type. I used to eat roast beef sandwiches with English mustard when I was a boy – following my father’s lead – but when I was at Oxford I was having a pub lunch one day, asked for a roast beef sandwich, and the landlord said, “mustard or horseradish?” I’d never heard of eating beef with horseradish, and told him so. He opined that everyone of good taste ate horseradish on roast beef sandwiches, so I agreed to try, and the rest is history. As far as I am concerned roast beef and horseradish are the Castor and Pollux of the sandwich world.
English sandwiches tend to be a bit slender, certainly in comparison with their New York deli counterparts. First roast beef sandwich I had in a deli on the upper West Side had more beef on it than my family ever had between the 5 of us for Sunday dinner. Somewhere in between the two extremes is more my speed these days. I like to roast the beef quite rare, but well caramelized on the outside, refrigerate what’s left from dinner, and slice it thin the next day. Pile the beef on freshly baked bread slathered with prepared horseradish and have at it. I don’t like extras such as lettuce, tomatoes, or cucumber. Bread, beef and horseradish is superb on its own. I like a nice hearty, crusty bread, but a crusty roll will do at a pinch.