Thursday 28 June 2018

Eight Miles to Breakfast

On this day 200 years ago, John Keats, on a walking tour of Northern parts with his friend Charles Brown, wrote a letter to his brother George (whom he had left, with his wife Georgiana, at Liverpool, where they took ship for America). 'I have slept,' he began, 'and walked eight miles to breakfast at Keswick on derwent water  – We could not mount Helvellyn for the mist so gave it up with hopes of Skiddaw which we shall try tomorrow if it be fine – today we shall walk round Derwent water and in our way see the falls of Low-dore...'
  Eight miles to breakfast! Keats, like most of the Romantics, was a serious walker. The stereotype of the Romantic poet as a kind of Fotherington-Thomas ('Hullo clouds hullo sky') wandering vaguely through the fields in a state of abstracted rapture could hardly be less appropriate. These people were heroic walkers as a matter of routine, thinking nothing of 20 miles a day and more – and Keats was no exception, as he showed day after day on his 1818 walking tour. Speaking as one who, in his younger days, would sometimes walk 20 miles or more, I can confirm that it's no joke, and to do it day after day would have been a major challenge. For someone of Keats's height – barely five feet – it would have been even more so, and yet he took is all in his surely rather short stride (his legs must have been a blur), and still had energy left over to write substantial letters to his family and friends. He was – until his health failed – as tough physically as he was mentally.
  In the course of this letter to George, Keats drops in a charming little lyric:

Sweet sweet is the greetings of eyes,
And sweet is the voice in its greeting,
When Adieux have grown old and goodbyes
Fade away when old time is retreating –

Warm the nerve of a welcoming hand
And earnest a Kiss on the Brow,
When we meet over sea and o'er Land
Where furrows are new to the Plough.

  (Has anyone ever set that to music?)
  Keats then jokes about the sheer volume of his letter-writing: 'We will before many Years are over have written many folio volumes which as a Matter of self-defence to one who you understand intends to be immortal in the best points and let all his Sins and peccadilloes die away – I mean to say that the Booksellers will rather decline printing ten folio volumes of Correspondence printed as close as the Apostles creed in a Watch paper...'
 Keats had to end his walking tour prematurely when he caught a particularly bad 'cold'. Returning to Hampstead in August, he found his brother Tom seriously ill with tuberculosis. Keats nursed him tirelessly until his death in December. Barely two years later, John Keats would himself be dead from the same terrible disease.

1 comment:

  1. Internet legend Dave Lull has already discovered that 'Sweeet, sweet is the greeting of eyes' was set to music by the Ohio-born, Vienna-based composer Eugene Hartzell. It's in A Keats Songbook, arranged for tenor and guitar (perfect for it, I'd say). Thanks, Dave.