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‘Ah, bitter chill it was!’: John Keats, the winter Romantic

Ursy Reynolds on reading the Romantic poets during Britain's bleakest season.

Unlike Agatha Christie adaptations or reruns of Doc Marten from 2009, the works of a 19th century Romantic poet seem an unlikely match with the dreary winter months. Rather, the mainstream approach is to view the Romantics through the lens of an eternal summer. The movement’s cornerstone ideology appraises nature, growth, and the freedom of roaming the Great Outdoors. Yet reading the Romantics with such a limited seasonal perspective denies them the complexity their work begs. If anything, the bitter British winter was a source of great inspiration for some Romantics, hardly a period to be discarded as a fruitless literary realm. If we simply read the Romantics as summer poets, we limit their work to a one-season run of flowers, lutes, and half-naked women, disconcertingly like the sole lucky break of many one-hit-wonder indie bands. So to what extent can we really read the Romantics as winter poets? Or would it be better to leave them frolicking in meadows as traditional opinion would prefer?

One of the clearest examples of a winter Romantic is one of the most contemplative and melancholic of Romantic figures, John Keats. At the time considered inferior to his more famous contemporaries in both literary and social status, Keats offered a new approach to the movement that shocked and abhorred peers. Lord Byron, a figurehead of the era not known for his subtlety, once declared that Keats wrote ‘piss a bed poetry’. Nowadays, however, it is common to group Keats neatly with Romantic contemporaries. Poems like ‘Bright Star, would I were as steadfast as thou art’ are indeed consistent with the Romantic reverence for the ‘eternal […] priestlike’ elements of nature. In addition, works such as ‘O Solitude! If I must with thee dwell’ condemn the ‘jumbled heap’ of Keats’ industrial world with appropriate Rousseauian distain. In Keats’ arguably most famous poem, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, images of ‘beechen green’, ‘embalmèd air’ and ‘fruit-tree wild’ align neatly with the general concept of the Romantics as summer poets. Summer is found not only in Keatsian settings, but also in plot: ‘Ode to Psyche’ sees ‘two fair creatures […] calm-breathing on the bedded grass’, with ‘arms embraced’, echoed by the two-dimensional image represented in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, describing the ‘fair youth, beneath the trees’. If so many of Keats’ central works coincide with the view of Romantics as summer poets, why does he remain one of the best examples of the counterargument? For this, it is necessary to take a closer look at some of Keats’ lesser discussed works.

‘The Eve of St Agnes’ is a wintery Keatsian masterpiece. This considerably hefty poem, spanning over forty stanzas, does not have the same position in the spotlight as ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ or, really, Keats’ odes in general. It is one of his more complex, darker pieces. It lacks the summertime brilliance of his simpler and shorter poems, drifting instead into the frosty realms of a medieval dream-state. Indeed, the same Romantic themes of passion and freedom from social constraints apply here. Keats also draws heavily, however, on unsettling winter images including ‘icy hoods and nails’ and ‘chill, silent as a tomb’, forging a dark and uncomfortable atmosphere only emphasised by ominous, seemingly deliberate over-employment of sibilance.

Rather saucily, this ‘bitter chill’ contrasts with, and thus emphasises, the heat of the passion experienced within Madeline’s ‘garlanded’ bedchamber later on in the poem. Lines such as ‘into her dream he melted, as the rose / blendeth its odour with the violet’ draw upon floral summer imagery, yet the reader is ever reminded of the ‘frost-wind’ outside. Keats’ references to the summer are only brief, dreamy escapes from the endurance of winter suffering. In this sense, Keats’ poem, though still maintaining the liminal state forever associated with Romanticism, maintains a gloomy and disturbing edge.

At times, Keats also toys with the sublime, another feature of the Romantics commonly seen in Wordsworth. This concept revolves around epic, awesome landscapes, encompassing the Romantic reverence for nature whilst often drawing on more isolated, wintery settings. ‘On The Sea’ (1817), one of Keats’ simplest poems inspired by the (rather less simple) Shakespeare tragedy, ‘King Lear’, is set amongst ‘desolate shores’, ‘caverns’ and ‘the winds of Heaven’. References to ‘the spell of Hecate’ and ‘sea nymphs’ provide the mythological surrealism often accompanying sublime writings.

Whether this winter dreariness is representative of Keats’ own melancholy is often discussed. In accordance with this argument, the concept of a ‘desolate shore’ appears in a later poem by Keats, ‘When I have Fears That I May Cease To Be’ (1818). In this later poem, Keats writes some of his best and most haunting lines: ‘on the shore /of the wide world, I stand alone, and think / till fame and love to nothingness do sink’. Hence, the wintery ‘shore’ becomes a place of alienation and contemplation existing side by side. Here, Keats could not be further from the flowery meadows we forever associate with the Romantics, existing instead on a darker, sadder plain, alone in the depths of winter. Not the cosiest of reads, but certainly crowning Keats a winter poet.

And so whilst some Keatsian works do embrace the endless summer in which we so love to imagine the Romantics, others prove that Keats has more to offer than cloudless skies. Looking at ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, among the other wintery works attributed to Keats, might be the answer to a fresh way of looking at the Romantics. If these next months feel dreary and dark, as they undoubtedly will as the struggle to vaccinate the vulnerable population continues, do seek solace in the strange, mysterious world of Romantics. Poets like Keats understood the dark depths of the British winter, and the human longing for the summer to come. And so as we knuckle down for some tough months ahead, put aside your fears and delve into a bit of Romanticism. Indeed, a bit of Keats will certainly remind you that whichever shore you stand upon, you certainly do not stand alone.

Image Credit: Culture Club/Getty Images.

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