John Keats and the Isle of Wight

By Edmund Matyjaszek based on a talk to the IoW Catholic History Society in 2007

John Keats was born in 1795. It is no surprise to many to link the name of John Keats and the Isle of Wight.

He spent two very productive periods of his life writing on the island – in 1817 when he was working on his early poems including Endymion with its graceful opening line “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”, and again in 1819, a great and critical year in his life when he composed the Odes on which his fame chiefly rests, including “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode to Autumn”. It was actually the scenery around Winchester when he returned from an island stay during the summer of that year that prompted this famous and justly-anthologised poem that opens:

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun”.

There is of course the Keats cafe in Shanklin – he did stay and write in the town so there is every justice in his name being linked to it – and at the entrance to St Mary’s Hospital in Newport the opening line from Endymion greets everyone as they walk through the main doors. And indeed on his return from Cowes to the mainland in 1819 he wrote in a letter a description of yachts at Cowes that was probably connected with what became the Royal Yacht Squadron, founded about this time:

“…one of the pleasantest things I have seen recently was at Cowes. The Regent was anchored opposite – a beautiful vessel – and all the Yachts and boats on the coast, were passing and repassing it; and circling it and tacking about it in every direction – I never beheld anything so silent, light and graceful.”

Also, two sonnets – an 1817 sonnet “On The Sea”, and his later poem “Bright Star” which may have been revised while he was on board the boat that took him to Italy late 1820 to recuperate from TB or consumption as it was known then, and which moored off the island on its way – were inspired it appears by the island coastline.

Keats never did return from Italy but died in Rome in 1821, at the very young age of 25. Along with Shelley who died off the coast of Italy in a sailing incident, John Keats is the prototype of the tragic romantic poet who dies young. All this however is well known. But what particular “religious” interest could this have? Keats himself is on record in his readable and sometimes profound letters as finding the figure of Jesus compelling, but he was not consciously a Christian.

What then do we make of lines such as these in “The Eve of St Agnes”?

St Agnes’ Eve – Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.

His prayer he saith, this patient, holy man;
Then takes his lamp, and riseth from his knees,
And back returneth, meagre, barefoot, wan,
Along the chapel aisle by slow degrees:
The sculputr’d dead, on each side, seem to freeze,
Emprison’d in black, purgatorial rails………..”

The images are almost exclusively catholic, which, given that Catholic Emancipation was another decade away, is rather unusual. “Beadsman, rosary, incense, sweet Virgin, purgatorial etc”. Now admittedly Keats was deliberately writing a “medieval” romance, inspired in part by medieval buildings visited in Chichester, and a neo-Gothic chapel in Hampshire. The gothic revival was already in full swing. But the impetus this writing gave to what became the Pre-Raphaelite movement and indeed coloured the imagery and even liturgy of what became the Anglo-Catholic movement in the Anglican Church is unexplored. And his late sonnet “Bright Star” re-inforces this in a most compelling way in a poem that was anything but “medieval”:

“Bright star! would I were steadfast as though art –
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores…………”

A better or more vivid or more appropriate picture of the endless priestly work of forgiveness is hard to find outside of Shakespeare. But then Keats has often been linked to Shakespeare in his rich, natural imagery. And of course Shakespeare was the son of a recusant father, and had a daughter who was a recusant in her turn………

One can make too much of this, as the 10 centuries of catholic christianity that preceded the break at the Reformation had formed and moulded the language and the liturgy and ceremony of the kingdom. But that it still runs strong nearly 300 years after the dissolution of the monasteries to surface with such force in Keats’ poems – and he is not alone – is a subject worth exploration. So what is a natural source of pride for the island in its connection with John Keats, becomes of intriguing further interest when one also looks at his work through a Christian, and Catholic, perspective.

His final years were spent in Rome, where he died in 1821 at the young age of 25. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome and his grave was visited by members of the IoW Catholic History Society whilst there on pilgrimage in 2006