In the steps of John Keats in Winchester (best viewed large).

Philip Mitchell

WINCHESTER, United Kingdom

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“Now the time is beautiful. I take a walk every day for an hour before dinner and this is generally my walk – I go out at the back gate across one street, into the Cathedral yard, which is always interesting; then I pass under the trees along a paved path, pass the beautiful front of the Cathedral, turn to the left under a stone door way – then I am on the other side of the building – which leaving behind me I pass on through two college-like squares seemingly built for the dwelling place of Deans and Prebendaries – garnished with grass and shaded with trees. Then I pass through one of the old city gates and then you are in one College-Street through which I pass and at the end thereof crossing some meadows and at last a country alley of gardens I arrive, that is, my worship arrives at the foundation of Saint Cross, which is a very interesting old place, both for its gothic tower and alms-square and for the appropriation of its rich rents to a relation of the Bishop of Winchester – Then I pass across St Cross meadows till you come to the most beautifully clear river – now this is only one mile of my walk I will spare you the other two till after supper when they would do you more good.” John Keats, Winchester, Tuesday 21 September, 1819

For a brief time in the later part of September 1819, the twenty-three year old John Keats was able to forget his troubles as he enjoyed Winchester’s old streets in the shadow of its great Cathedral, took his walks past its ancient College and out across the Water Meadows. One of the results is the Ode to Autumn, probably his best-loved poem and twice 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.

Born on the outskirts of London on 31 October 1795, John was the eldest of five. A sister and two brothers survived into adulthood, but Edward died in infancy. When he was eight, his father was killed in an accident: so began 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 he could afford it, 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 emotionally and creatively exhausted and his financial anxieties had returned. 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 from there to Hampshire. Is it supposing too much to suggest that his masterly poem encapsulates a feeling of resigned premonition? Within only another eighteen months, not yet twenty-six, John Keats would himself be dead in a foreign land.

This collage follows the poet’s own description of the daily walks in Winchester that gave him such respite and inspiration. It is taken from a letter to his brother George which is printed below the images.

All the buildings seen here were standing in 1819 and are grade listed by English Heritage.

Artwork Comments

  • lilynoelle
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