The tough side of John Keats

A BBC radio documentary discovers the Highland hiker behind the Romantic poet.

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“If your idea of Keats is of a delicate, tragic young man lying on a chaise longue in Hampstead, think again.” A documentary about Keats (6.45pm, 6 January) was heart-melting, retracing some of the poet’s steps west across Scotland, where he trekked for four months in 1818 with his friend Charles Brown. Presenter Professor Fiona Stafford over-brimmed with love and information (Keats stopped at Dove Cottage to pay homage to Wordsworth, only he was out, so a crestfallen Keats left a note) and didn’t even get to mention his love affair with Fanny Brawne, or that Keats was one of the greatest correspondents in Western literature.

Instead, we learned that on this walk he wore a massive fur hat and Brown a bright red tartan suit. They looked so singular – so “kenspeckle” – that they drew frowning crowds in Glasgow. Stafford was determined to paint JK as a tough guy who would leave anybody today with a hiking pole for dust. And he was! He shifted some 400 miles, 27 of them across a bog in Mull where the mud gnawed at him like quicksand. On Iona he found the graves of ancient monarchs such as Macbeth, their stone effigies scattered on the ground. Could these be the pale warriors of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”? Someone read the poem in the driving rain, cagoule flapping. It was impossible to not well up (“And this is why I sojourn here,/Alone and palely loitering”). 

Eventually Stafford had to concede that all of this took some toll (“Keats had picked up a bit of a sore throat”). He returned to Well Walk in Hampstead to find his brother Tom near-dead of TB, and the disease taking hold of him too. Keats would die little more than two years later, after writing “Hyperion and his incomparable odes. “Scotland had weakened his body,” notes Stafford “but strengthened his reach in poetry.” What pulsed here wasn’t sadness, though – more the euphoric sense of Keats trying to match the intensity of his ear and his feelings, with his relentless synaesthesia. He filled the corner of every line, as compressed as Shakespeare in the sonnets, but at an even greater pitch, preoccupied with beauty and the ecstasy of physical excess, and with death and the spirit world. With dying into a better place. 

Keats Goes North
BBC Radio 3

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 11 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit Showdown