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Monday, 19 September 2011

Keats: Autumn at Winchester, Reimagined (A Warm Situation, September 1819)



Landscape near Shoreham: Samuel Palmer (c. 1826-1835)

I surprise myself by how much pleasure I live alone in. Fields where a month ago men bound up their wheat all day, and the harvesters, leaning on their instruments like flagging vines, complained of heat, while hirundines passed across the sky in great assemblies, are now a brown stubble under mist in a cool blue dusk, with sweet moon light all around, while stone-curlews cry late into the fine sharp starlight-tempered evenings.

Hop-picking goes on without interruption, as it continues warm. The whole air of the villages is perfumed by effluvia from the hops drying in the kilns. Is it this aromatic resonance that makes my brain feel pleasantly drowsy when I am on my walks, or when I am alone composing? Night dews, days calm and cloudless. I am alone and not myself, far from home and in a warm situation. The farm women gather in the pear-mains, golden rennets and golden pippins. Sweet days, golden eves, red horizons. Just at the close of day several teams of ducks fly over the cathedral fronts from the forest, headed off probably to find a congenial stream. My chance of immortality is to learn the tune of nature's quiet power.

TC: A Warm Situation, from Junkets on a Sad Planet: Scenes from the Life of John Keats, 1994

File:Noche de luna llena - Full moon night.jpg

Noche de luna llena (Night of the full moon): photo by photo by Luz A. Villa, 2007

Keats's manuscript draft of To Autumn, made in Winchester in the early Fall of 1819. The draft shows the poet, here poised at the calm peak of his swiftly-maturing powers, composing rapidly but also with a propulsive exactitude in his word choices, each stage of working revision indicating a significant forwarding of the poem. The fluid compositional labour appears to have slowed for a regathering of thoughts in the middle stanza, especially in lines 15-16; here the viewer of the working draft, even at this distant remove in time, can almost sense Keats -- who required of his work that one be able to "feel it on the pulse" -- "feeling for" a solution to the problem he has set for himself: that is, to sketch a full, evocative, "inscaped" (to borrow the term of another English poet, Hopkins) "character" of the season. Looking at his manuscript draft up close one may be tempted to make out a hidden poetics of process at work, beckoning to the later reader from within the several wonderfully serendipitous "slips of the pen"; of themselves these seeming mistakes may be fancifully said to create mini-poems: as when the exploring draftsman writes of a recumbent Autumn's "hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind", and it comes out "winmowing". Is it not possible to see in that alluringly errant holograph line an image of Autumn's hair being both winnowed and mown, as field-grass is, by the gentle breeze?


gamefaced said...

from earlier this summer.



Beautiful post here -- Samuel Palmer's painting, Keats' notes to himself (written just before/during the poem itself it seems), then those handwritten pages of "To Autumn" itself, then your notes. . . . ("This living hand, now warm and capable of earnest grasping. . .) --


first grey light in sky above blackness
of ridge, white half moon beside branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

sense of picture, expressed
condition that it was

awareness of frame, becomes
that again, this time

cloudless blue sky reflected in channel,
shadowed green slope of ridge across it

TC said...

gamefaced, hello and I love the deep green nearness and fuzzy airy far-awayness of that, the whole look and feel of a warm situation, framed with -- ? --a historic cannonwheel.

Stephen, good morning from first pale light of day on the other side of the ridge and thank you for

sense of picture, expressed
condition that it was

awareness of frame, becomes
that again, this time

the pieces fit.

gamefaced said...

not exactly winchester, but close. this is an old battle field, near harpers ferry wv.

Hazen said...

What I find so appealing here, Tom, among much else, is Keats attention to the sky: to its varying colors, to the birds, to the moon and stars, as each in turn asserts itself on his vision and on the changing hour.

One autumn, I looked up in response to a sound overhead and saw two geese, but only two, flying in a broken echelon, missing the phantom third that would have formed a satisfying symmetry, for myself at least, and the reassurance that nature is holding its own. Beautiful as it was, the sight left me un poco triste. I wondered if I was witnessing the annihilation of nature, one creature at a time.

TC said...

OMG, gamefaced, totally forgot your winchestrian deep knowledge. I mean, knowledge of THAT Winchester. Not THIS Winchester.

Not to unnecessarily pervade your wondrous workday with the novelty smash hits of Jurassic Park, but... I had not remembered these guys being this amusing.

And for that matter they weren't.

But once, after an all nighter on the Fulham Road, I actually daytripped to that quaint little English cathedral town, and...

And now it all floats back, through the acid-tinged mists of time. Period stuff, but still -- strange, period.

When Geoff Stephens, who had penned the original instant one-off studio-made unforgettably-hooky/hokey vinyl sensation, found he had US gold on his hands, along with the inevitable tour offer, he threw together this weird send-up/ stand-up/sit down-and-pour-the-tea outfit.

The extremely weird tone is set by the brilliant Bob Kerr, an escapee from the trad-insane Bonzo Dog Doo-Da Band.

I love it that Kate Smith is introducing them in Hollywood on the clip, and I didn't even mind, in fact actually enjoyed sitting through the delirious entirely-forgotten warm-up number ("Peek-a-Boo") which segues into... da-dah... the "original" Winchester Cathedral.

Nothing like a Youtube viewer comment to bring you up to speed on the facts (or was that up to facts on the speed?).

My grandmum had sex with Geoff Stephens. He wrote this song. She fucked everybody.
SweetJaneofGoth 7 months ago

Dear old GrannyofGoth. And I'm sure she loves you for saying that, SweetJane.

betheboredom 4 months ago

Oh well, btb, personally I think it gives Eleanor a run for her money.

Hazen, alas I think I do know that annihilation-of-nature premonition/intuition to which you refer. Triste, triste, less poco than grande. Every wild and/or natural thing we see just might be the last. In that sense, there is also the intense poignancy of such moments of vision. Death is the mother of beauty.

The light sinks low in the West, the year is on the wane, and one babbles on.

(By the way, I should confess that the "voice" in this post is not quite Keats's, not quite mine, but that of a constructed persona I made or imagined, based on and rooted in a person, a place and a time, yet also, to be honest, an extreme fiction. I ventriloquize my own private Keats all through the book from which this piece comes.)

Hazen said...

Tom, I suspected that it was your/Keats’s vision. I should have put it that way. Also should have written the possessive correctly the first time. I’ll chalk that up to morning brain syndrome.

Anonymous said...

A digression: When I lived in Hamburg der Kiez (pronounced "Keats", at least to my ear) was the name that was given to the area around the Reeperbahn, the district where the Beatles played. We were doing some work around there. Before I saw the German spelling I always assumed it was the same, and - this was before you could look things up on the internet - wondered why the neighbourhood was named after an English poet.

Another digression: "Reeperbahn" is a Low-German or Dutch name that comes from the trade that used to be practised there before it became the red-light district: ropemaking. Here you can see how it's made, and here you can see why the Reeperbahn is a long, straight, broad street.

I hope you didn't know all this already,

TC said...


No bother. I am (at least) half blind. Keats saw perfectly well.


It's good to learn something new every day. The role of the lad in green shorts would be the one for me. Ostensibly helpful, yet responsible for nothing. Speaking of der Kiez and the issue of naming, and being tied up, I am put in mind of der Byron's name for der Kiez (click and view third statement from top):

Jack Ketch.

Anonymous said...

Now I remember Jack Ketch, I think from Punch & Judy. Byron was an awful snob.

TC said...

Yes, Byron's astonishingly vigorous class-antipathy toward Keats ("A man may be coarse yet not vulgar, and the reverse...") -- encapsulating his entire disdain not only for the person (he had in fact never met Keats) but for what was then called "the suburban school of poetry", i.e. that emanating from Hampstead, and in particular the Vale of Health, where Leigh Hunt had ensconced himself and where young Keats was for a time a wide-eyed habitué -- probably reveals a good deal more about the character of Byron than it does about the work or character of Keats.

Hunt's rebuttal, in the third-from-bottom passage on the scroll, is effective enough. Byron is to have (perhaps disingenously, perhaps not) said that he couldn't understand the line from the Nightingale Ode, "O for a beaker full of the warm south". And Hunt's quite clever riposte: "College had made him intimate enough with that..."

Anonymous said...

The Vale of Health is less than half a mile from where Evelyn Waugh grew up in Golders Green. I'd love to know what was meant by "the suburban school of poetry"; if it was a put-down it surely can't have had the same implication of conservative second-rateness, mock-Tuder gables and mowing the rectangular lawn on Saturday afternoons, that it had by the second half of the 20C in Britain - now I'm being the snob.

Anonymous said...

Tom, I was interested in the quotation at the top of this post (I surprise myself by how much pleasure I live alone in...), and googling "TC: A Warm Situation, from Junkets on a Sad Planet: Scenes from the Life of John Keats, 1994", I came across this page at wood s lot. It mentions you twice, though not in the context I was looking for, but anyway, I was wondering if you know wood s lot, Mark Woods' blog? I have it on my blogroll; it seems like something that would be up your street.

Anonymous said...

- Now I see you have wood listed on your blogroll.

TC said...


Byron's response is merely an exaggerated version of the class antagonism instigated in the older propertied quarters in particular by the young upstart Keats, a former apothecary's apprentice turned "Romantic" day-tripper, and in general by the growing numbers of upwardly mobile fugitives from the City who were turning up at its outskirts in cottages with small kitchen gardens and flowerpots in the windows (an "inauthentic" miniature simulation of the landed estate), cut-price collections of knock-off busts and prints (objectionable false simulations of "high art" -- exactly the sort of decorative bric-a-brac which filled Hunt's cottage in the Vale of Health, formerly known as Hatch's Bottom), and all the artificial and domesticated trappings that went with the new petit-bourgeois classes' aspiration toward gentility. All these objectionable symptoms were exhibited aplenty in Keats's early poems, a virtual museum of all that was "read" by established literary proprietors as the contemporary signals of class striving. Add in the embarrassing sexual naïveté Keats had revealed in Endymion, and an entire spectrum of cultural transgression was contained in the "trash" that so offended Byron merely by lying on his table.

One ought to recall, in particular, the history of Hampstead, especially its early popularity with urban day trippers. As early as 1829, when battle was first joined to prevent over-building, a writer from Gray's Inn stressed the need for all classes to escape from noise and dirt to Hampstead, one of the few remaining "lungs of the metropolis". His hope that a public asset might be preserved, if only for the sake of private rights, found support in the House of Commons and in a well known 1829 cartoon by George Cruikshank, showing the advance of bricks and mortar. The flight of the new middle classes from the City was caricatured in this memorable representation of the "robot" house builders moving through Islington toward Hampstead.

The appeal of suburban escape from the smoky, dirty, overcrowded City to what still remained relatively open space, at the time of Keats's dallyings there, is reflected in this view of Hampstead from the banks of Regents canal, 1814.

Keep in mind that as late as 1832 Hampstead remained well outside London proper:

Middlesex countymap, 1832.

The London water reservoirs (not exactly the Lake Country), which numbered four during Keats's time, remained the most prominent feature of the suburban landscape well into the mid-19th c., as seen in this Hampstead map, 1866.

Contemporary images show Hampstead as a vernal retreat. Note here the sketch of "Keats's seat", outside his residence at # 46 Old Well Walk.

Well into the Victorian period the idealistic identification of Keats with the "wilds of Hampstead" was common. See his friend Joseph Severn's posthumous portrait of him, done 24 years after his death:

Keats listening to a nightingale on Hampstead Heath.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for all this, Tom. I find it very interesting, of course. I looked up "suburb" & "suburban" on my OED and it's very old, I was surprised to find. I had thought that the concept was from the 19C, but "suburb" goes back to before Chaucer and people were saying bad things about them by the 16C.

Anonymous said...

Here's the Chaucer one:

c1386 Chaucer Can. Yeom. Prol. 104

In the suburbes of a toun‥Lurkynge in hernes and in lanes blynde.

I find it most peculiar to hear Chaucer talking about the 'burbs. For me, he might as well be describing the heated towel rail in his bathroom.

TC said...

The Middle Ages one imagines as having been so frigid, what with all the great grey stone and black death & c., that perhaps nothing could have improved life so much, whether in city or town or in the hostel on the road to Canterbury, as a heated towel rack.

Marcia said...

Thank you for your poem and the memories of your Keats class.

TC said...


Mondays just aren't the same...