In the late afternoon of Sunday, September 19, 1819, 23-year-old John Keats struck out for his daily walk from his lodging in Winchester, England. He’d arrived in the city a month prior, leaving behind southern England’s Isle of Wight for a change of scenery in the cathedral city of Winchester. It was, potentially, his farewell tour as a poet: one last gasp to get it right or forsake his art forever. “My purpose now is to make one more attempt in the Press,” Keats wrote to his friend Benjamin Haydon the previous June, “if that fail, ‘ye hear no more of me’ as Chaucer says.”
No matter that the previous month had been the most productive of his life—“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “Ode on Melancholy” are all believed to have been composed that May. In Keats’s view, he was a failure. Much of this sentiment was rooted in financial hardship; his lack of steady income not only prevented him from marrying his fiancé, Fanny Brawne, but also precluded him from bailing out his brother George from a bad business venture. Adding to his troubles was a slew of negative reviews for his 1818 poem “Endymion.” One critic described it as “imperturbable drivelling idiocy,” while another confessed that despite his “superhuman” attempts, he was unable to “struggle beyond the first of the four books.”
Under these dark clouds, Keats began his afternoon walk: past the cathedral yard, beneath the stone archway, and beyond a pair of college-like squares, until approaching the old city gates. Then, a sharp turn onto College Street before eyeing a footpath along the River Itchen.
Keats drank deeply from the pastoral beauty preserved along that path, roaming through the water meadow along an “alley of gardens” until arriving at the Hospital of St. Cross, a twelfth-century medieval almshouse where, for centuries, pilgrims received the Wayfarer’s Dole of ale and bread. Neither of which Keats received that day. He filled himself instead with sensations. The fructifying flavors of the autumnal walk all but overwhelmed him: “How beautiful the season is now, how fine the air, a temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather, Dian skies,” he remarked in a letter to his friend John Reynolds just two days later. “I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now… Somehow a stubble plain looks warm—in the same way that some pictures look warm—this struck me so much in my Sunday walk that I composed upon it.”
The resulting poem, “To Autumn,” has since become one of the most anthologized English poems of all time. Though overshadowed by his odes to Grecian urns and nightingales, this detail-rich account of autumn’s inevitable turn to winter is often considered Keats’s most perfect poem. For all its slow-motion churning (gourds swelling, the “fume of poppies,” the “last-oozings” of the cider-press”), it also depicts a moment frozen in time. “Like the Greek figures on Keats’s urn,” writes poet Caitlin Kimball, “the scene is forever unfolding, round and perfect in its paradox of action and statis. It is always not yet winter.”
By the twentieth century, critics praised Keats’s work with the same zeal with which nineteenth-century critics had panned it—and no commendation was complete without some mention of “To Autumn.” In 1917, Keats’s biographer Sidney Colin described the poem as “more complete and faultless than any of them.” In 1961, Harold Bloom called it “the most perfect shorter poem in the English language.” That Keats’s most perfect poem doubled as his last poem of significance seems precisely the cruel irony we expect from a romantic poet. Then again, perhaps Keats’s untimely death at 25 secured his legacy.
Isn’t the myth of the poet always more memorable than his metaphors?
Two hundred and three years later, I, too, struck out for a stroll in Winchester. My family and I arrived in the city in late summer, accompanied by eight university students who’d joined me for a course on King Arthur. Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century text Le Morte D’arthur had named Winchester as the modern site for King Arthur’s Camelot, and so, for two weeks, we embedded ourselves upon King Arthur’s hallowed ground.
Most of these walks occurred in the pre-dawn hours when fog still clung across St. Giles Hill. Often, I was accompanied by my two-year-old daughter, who, perhaps owing to time-zone shifts, had become a morning person like me. To spare my wife and older children the indignity of such an early wake-up call, I’d buckle my daughter into her stroller, then head south toward High Street until the west front of Winchester Cathedral emerged between the Yew trees. Bypassing the tombs in the cathedral yard, we slipped beneath an archway toward Winchester College. Off to our right: the home where Jane Austen died. To our left: the ruins of Wolvesley Castle.
One morning, we wound our way toward a small wooden sign which read “Footpath.” Its mysterious, non-specific allure ensured we had to try it. The gravel path was hardly ideal for the stroller, though within minutes, the rumble of the rocks lulled my daughter to sleep. In this way, I was alone but not alone, wide-eyed and wonderstruck as a new day dawned along the River Itchen. The water meadow overflowed with flora; the alley of gardens was still there.
The sun rose just as we approached the Hospital of St. Cross. Officially, the almshouse opened to the public at 10:30 a.m., but unofficially, it was always open. Or open enough to allow us entrance into its square, a swath of greenery surrounded by medieval walls. I tried to imagine its history: how for centuries, tens of thousands of pilgrims knocked on its door in search of God, or perhaps just ale and bread.
What I didn’t know—what I wouldn’t learn for months—was that John Keats was one of those pilgrims. While ensnared in the most painful period of his life—one brother freshly dead, another destitute, and his own life imperiled by the tubercular bacteria already taking root in his lungs—he struck out on a stroll and ended up here, ready to receive his miracle.
The miracle occurred on the evening of September 19, shortly after Keats returned from his walk. He sat at his desk in his lodging house, trying desperately to transfer to the page the beauty he’d just experienced:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…
The opening line, a description of autumn, also reflected Keats’s state of mind. He had recently entered his own “season of mist”—a moment of deep personal and professional uncertainty. Throughout Keats’s seven weeks in Winchester, the word “mist” regularly appears in his letters: “I must remain some days in a Mist,” he wrote to his fiancé, Fanny Brawne, just days after arriving in the city. “I see you through a Mist, as I dare say you do me by this time.” The following month, in the same letter to John Reynolds in which he’d described his poem-inspiring walk, he added, “Tonight I am all in a mist. I scarcely know what’s what….” And then, in a moment of clarity: “It strikes me tonight that I have led a very odd sort of life for the two or three last years—Here and there—No anchor—I am glad of it.” No anchor, but perhaps no rudder, either.
Since 1817, Keats had bounced between towns in search of some hospitable place for his work. Home, for him, was where his poems were produced. By the summer of 1819, he hoped Winchester might serve as just such a place, inspiring him with its cathedral, its natural beauty, and its two libraries—both of which turned away the middling poet.
Despite the libraries’ unwillingness to welcome him, Keats nonetheless described Winchester as “the pleasant Town I ever was in.” It was a chance to re-anchor himself, and ideally, provide him the time to recover from his lingering sore throat—later diagnosed as tuberculous. “Since I have been in Winchester I have been improving in health,” he wrote optimistically to his friend John Taylor on September 5, “…there is on one side of the city a dry chalky down where the air is worth sixpence a pint.”
He’s likely referring to the area around St. Catherine’s hill—an iron-age fort that today serves as a 110-acre nature reserve. I, too, have breathed that air. Days after arriving in the city, I climbed to the top, where I was greeted by a grove of ancient beech trees, whose high limbs created a mosaic of shadows along the ankle-high grass. How easy it was to imagine King Arthur atop his mount, peering at his beloved Camelot. Of course, it was easier still to imagine John Keats among those trees—a brooding young man breathing deeply on “sixpence a pint” air, waiting to welcome his muse.
Reading John Keats’s Winchester letters today reveals a mind lost in the mist. Rather manically, he flitters back and forth between continuing to pursue his poetry full tilt or hurling his pen into the river. “I am convinced more and more day by day that fine writing is next to fine doing the top thing in the world…” he wrote John Reynolds in late August. “I feel it in my power to become a popular writer.”
Yet the following month, in a letter to Richard Woodhouse that included a draft of “To Autumn,” he reversed course, lamenting, “My Poetry will never be fit for anything; it doesn’t cover its ground well.” As a result, Keats informed Woodhouse that he planned to abandon his poetry in favor of steady work writing for periodicals. “I will no longer live upon hopes,” he said.
That same day he wrote a second letter to Charles Brown, and, as if to steel himself in his decision, repeated his plan nearly verbatim: “It is quite time I should see myself doing something, and live no longer upon hopes.” And then, a third letter that day; this one to C.W. Dilke: “I have no trust whatever in Poetry. I don’t wonder at it—the marvel is to me how people read so much of it.” (This from the guy who once said “I find that I cannot exist without poetry…”; it seems self-doubt creeps in like mist to cripple us all.)
Though Keats’s threats to abandon his poetry never came to fruition, he was continually racked by the prospect. Had he lived longer, he might’ve made good on it. “Some think I have lost that poetic ardour and fire ‘tis said I once had,” Keats wrote to his brother George one September day shortly after drafting his most perfect poem. “The fact is perhaps I have, but instead of that I hope I shall substitute a more thoughtful and quiet power.”
Shortly after returning to America—and learning of Keats’s connection to my footpath—I came across the anthology from a college course I took on Romanticism in 2006. I flipped to the works of Keats, studying my undergraduate marginalia in search of clues for what I observed as a reader when I was Keats’s age. It was a humbling proposition. Not just returning to my juvenile scrawl (“Keats lives in extremes!”; “Keats views reader as object!”), but also being forced to draw some rather awkward comparisons. Like how at 22, I was barely managing Bs on my term papers, while Keats, at 24, had already composed his greatest works.
There’s still time, I regularly reassure myself. You’re still learning.
As for Keats, he was dead by 25. Though when you consider how fiercely he lived, and how much he managed in such a short period, his untimely death can begin to feel a little less tragic. In the anthology, I’d underlined an introductory note, which read: “Keats’s enemy was time.” But time is neither enemy nor friend—it all hinges on how we use it.
Take, for instance, one of Keats’s most famous subjects, the nightingale, whose lifespan ranges between one to five years. Yet throughout that time, they produce over 1,000 different sounds—nearly triple the number produced by skylarks, nature’s second-place singers. Upon hearing a birdsong, no one ever comments on its duration; instead, we describe the song itself.
I’d like to report that my momentary geographic proximity to Keats instilled within me a glimpse of poetic genius. Or, at least, that since strolling in Keats’s footsteps, I now more fully understood what he saw: the landscape graced with “stubble-plains with rosy hue” and where the “full-grown lambs loud bleat.” I’m not even sure that much is true.
However, on the morning when I pushed my daughter in her stroller along that path, I did spot what I took for stubble plains. Continuing, I observed, too, the ancestors of Keats’s full-grown lambs. Despite my daughter’s babbling pleas (“Sheepy, sheepy!”), those sheep had no time for us, preferring instead to graze near the roots of a tree along the water’s edge. Had I been lost in my own season of mist, I wonder if those lambs might’ve lured me back to my writing desk. Or the heron skimming atop the water. Or the flora, so bountiful that to this day it still forms alleys of gardens.
But in all my walks along that path, I remained clear-eyed and committed to my oft-fruitless attempt to write one word after the next, ever hopeful of discovering some freshly glimpsed beauty on the page. While on that path, I didn’t once think of John Keats. Now I can’t stop thinking of him. Particularly, how a poet at the peak of his power had no sense of the power he possessed. How he planned to quit, but ultimately stuck to the path. How he silenced both his critics and his self-doubt and took once more to pen and paper.
“I am ambitious of doing the world some good…” he wrote to Richard Woodhouse in 1818. “[I]f I should be spared, that may be the work of maturer years.” But there would be no “mature years” for Keats. All he had was the time he had, though ultimately it was enough. Somewhere in the meadow that day, Keats’s myth met metaphor, freeing him to write with a clarity that his recent circumstances had obscured.
For a moment, the mist lifted; the muse returned. One last line of how “the gathering swallows twitter in the skies.” And then, inevitable winter.