John Keats. A New Life. By Nicholas Roe
In my new biography I’ve given close attention to locations where Keats wrote his poems, to suggest how those circumstances may have influenced the language and shaped the forms of his poetry. An obvious instance is that his poetry always flowed more abundantly if he was writing somewhere near water. He often journeyed through England in quest of such places – at the Isle of Wight, Oxford, Margate, and Teignmouth - before his final epic voyage into Romantic myth as ‘a name writ in water’. The following is an extract from John Keats. A New Life: ‘Keats deliberately commenced The Eve of St. Agnes at the Old Mill House in Bedhampton, on the Hampshire coast – because at Bedhampton there was plenty of water. To the front of the house was a neatly channelled millpond of fresh water feeding the mill wheel. Immediately behind the house was tidal water in the Hermitage Stream. Located midway between sweet and salt water, the Old Mill House was perfectly placed to suggest the contrasted tones Keats meditated for his poem. From his early ‘Imitation of Spenser’ the steady surface of water had presented a threshold between real and ideal worlds, and The Eve of St. Agnes would also be concerned with dreaming and waking, folklore and frosty actuality. Likewise, the tidal alternations of Hermitage Stream may have brought to mind a narrative of stealthy entry and furtive flight, the flow and ebb of voluptuous desire, and even a verse form that could best combine passion’s rise, consummation and afterglow with the mediaeval atmosphere he intended for his story - Spenser’s stanza from The Faerie Queen. Spenserian verse was associated with Keats’s delighted discovery of poetry at Enfield School; it was used by his early favourites James Beattie and Mary Tighe; and it enjoyed popular success in Byron’s Childe Harold. Keats had not attempted this form since his ‘Imitation of Spenser’, but it was exactly suited to his present needs. The rhyme scheme a b a b b c b c c mounts towards a central couplet, then turns in a second sequence towards a closing couplet that takes leave with a long, supple alexandrine measure in its final line. Each stanza contains a pattern of gathering intensity, fulfilment, and retreat that would be reflected in his poem’s larger narrative structure. That Keats’s genius was indeed responding to the tidal fluctuations of Hermitage Stream is suggested by one of his many masterstrokes in the Eve of St. Agnes. A new moon appeared two days after Keats’s arrival at Bedhampton, and The Eve of St. Agnes is illuminated throughout by ‘St. Agnes’ moon’ as it voyages across a chilly winter sky to set six stanzas before the end. By pallid moonshine and turning tides, Keats told the time of his poem’.