For a few short weeks in the early Autumn of 1819, the twenty-three year old John Keats found he was able to forget his troubles as he walked along Winchester’s old streets in the shadow of its great Cathedral, past its ancient College and out across the Water Meadows. He wrote: “How beautiful the season is now. This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.” The result is this, probably his best-loved poem, three times voted one of Britain’s top ten; in it he celebrates the gentle, contented way that Autumn slips into Winter, catching perfectly the sense of accomplishment at the end of Summer.
Keats had been born on the outskirts of London on 31 October 1795, the eldest of five. He had a sister and three brothers, of whom Edward died in infancy. His father was killed in an accident when John was eight, starting the financial uncertainty that was to plague him for the rest of his days. Tuberculosis, the disease that would eventually kill him too, claimed first an uncle and then, when he was fourteen, his mother. All this made the Keats children unusually close. John was left first in the charge of his maternal grandmother and then of two guardians. Fortunately by then his love of literature had been kindled at Clarke’s, the good local school in Enfield, and although he was subsequently apprenticed to an apothecary-surgeon, a passion for poetry gradually took over from his hopes of a medical career. He eventually gave up medicine for the literary life, but not before qualifying at Guy’s.
Friendship with leading figures like Leigh Hunt and Shelley helped get a volume of his early works into print by 1816, but they met with a poor critical response. In May 1818 his brother George married and emigrated to America, leaving in John’s care their other surviving brother Tom who was already ill, also with tuberculosis.
Keats loved to travel when his finances allowed, and that Summer he went on a walking tour of Scotland with his friend Charles Brown. A severe chill and tonsillitis, however, forced him to cut the trip short, only to find on his return to London that his brother was gravely ill. By December 1818 the much-loved Tom was gone too.
Brown had rented part of his Hampstead house to a Mrs Brawne and her attractive daughter Fanny for the time they were away. When Keats met Fanny he fell hopelessly in love with her, but he probably suspected he was ill, and certainly realised that he could not offer her financial security on the basis of the little he had earned so far from his published work.
Perhaps because he knew he had little time left, or perhaps as a means of escape, he threw himself into the writing of poetry and produced the majority of his greatest works. By the Autumn of 1819, however, he was suffering from creative and emotional exhaustion and financial anxiety. London could not provide the peace and quiet he needed and it was expensive, so he decided to get away, first to the relative calm of the Isle of Wight and thence to Hampshire. Is it supposing too much to suggest that this masterly poem encapsulates a feeling of resigned premonition? Within only another eighteen months, not yet twenty-six, John Keats would himself be dead.
In this image, autumn leaves captured in Winchester in late September provide the background for the Keats poem.