On Monday 15 February 1819, after Keats had finished writing ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ (suggested by Mrs Isabella Jones) he started on another poem based on her suggestion, ‘The Eve of Saint Mark’.
Upon a Sabbath-day it fell;
Twice holy was the sabbath bell
That call’d the folk to evening prayer.
The City Streets were clean and fair
From wholesome drench of April rains,
And, on the western window pains
The chilly sunset faintly told
Of immaturd, green vallies cold,
Of the green, thorny, bloomless hedge,
Of Rivers new with spring tide sedge,
Of Primroses by sheltered rills,
And daisies on the aguish hills.
Twice holy was the sabbath bell:
The silent streets were crowded well
With staid and pious companies
Warm from their fire-side oratries,
And moving with demurest air
To even song and vesper prayer.
Each arched porch and entry low
Was fill’d with patient crowd and slow,
With whispers hush, and shuffling feet
While play’d the organ loud and sweet.
The bells had ceas’d, the Prayers begun,
And Bertha had not yet half done
A curious volume, patch’d and torn,
That all day long, from earliest morn,
Had taken captive her fair eyes.
Among its golden broideries:—
Perplex’d her with a thousand things—
The Stars of heaven, and Angels wings;
Martyrs in a fiery blaze;
Azure saints ’mid silver rays;
Aron’s breastplate, and the seven
Candlesticks John saw in heaven;
The winged Lion of Saint Mark,
And the Covenental Arck
With its many Mysteries
Cherubim and golden Mice.
On Saturday 13 February 1819, Keats went to town for the first time in 3 weeks. He visited Richard Abbey to discuss Fanny Keats’s schooling (he couldn’t persuade him to let her continue her education), and saw the family solicitors. If only Mr Walton had been in, Keats might have learned about the inheritance he was due from grandmother Mrs Jennings (it wouldn’t be uncovered till after Keats’s death).
On Monday 25 January 1819 Keats and Brown visited Stansted Park, one of the finest houses in the area, built in the late 18th century, with a medieval core.
Its features included gold-embroidered chairs, a tapestry from Arras, and panelled rooms with intricate carvings by Grindling Gibbons. The chapel has a window with a triple arch, diamond-shaped panes of glass and coats of arms. All of these would appear in ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’.
Writing to his brother George: ‘The only time I went out from Bedhampton was to see a chapel consecrated—Brown, I, and John Snook the boy, went in a chaise behind a leaden horse. Brown drove, but the horse did not mind him. This chapel is built by a Mr. Way, a great Jew converter.’
Photos of the chapel by Peter Phillips.
“A window high and triple-arched there was…”
On Sunday 24 January 1819, Keats and Brown (staying with Dilke’s sister and brother-in-law in Bedhampton) wrote a joint letter to Charles Wentworth Dilke in Hampstead, full of dreadful puns. Keats’s contribution ends: ‘Remember me to Wentworth Place and Elm Cottage—not forgetting Millamant’.
[Elm Cottage was where Fanny Brawne (‘Millamant’ in this letter) lived.
In Congreve’s play ‘The Way of the World’ Millamant is described:
“I like her with all her faults; nay, like her for her faults. Her follies are so natural, or so artful, that they become her, and those affectations which in another woman would be odious serve but to make her more agreeable.” (Act I Scene 3)]
On Saturday 23 January 1819, Keats and Brown left Chichester (where they had stayed with John Dilke’s parents) and walked to The Old Mill House at Bedhampton, where Keats would stay with John and Letitia Snook (Dilke’s sister and brother-in-law) and their children (“I was nearly a fortnight and Mr John Snook’s”).
For lovers of Keats’s poetry it was an important fortnight, as it was here that he would compose most of ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’.
[Image of The Old Mill House at Bedhampton, from Pinterest]
On Wednesday 20 January 1819 Keats arrived in Chichester where (as he told his brother and sister-in-law) “I took down some of the thin paper and wrote on it a little poem called St. Agnes’s Eve”.
Here is the opening stanza:
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.
Around Sunday 17 January 1819 John Keats visited Mrs Isabella Jones, an enigmatic lady he had met near Hastings in 1817 (he wrote to his brother George “I had warmed with her and kissed her”).
On this day she told him about the legend of St Agnes Eve which inspired him to start writing his much-loved poem in Chichester three days later.
There will be a reading of the poem in Chichester on Saturday 19 January 2019, when the University of Chichester are holding an evening which includes:
5:15pm — a talk by Professor Fiona Price (of Chichester University) ‘Keats in Chichester’
5:25pm — a talk by Professor Nick Roe (St Andrews University) ‘John Keats and “The Eve of St. Agnes”’
6:30pm — ‘Keats in Chichester and the Eve of St. Agnes: A dramatic reading’ with a cast of seven readers.
Venue: St Pancras Church, 101 St Pancras, Chichester, PO19 7LJ
Looking forward to joining Matthew Coultard when he reads Keats’s ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ this evening at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery, Gresham Street, EC2V 7HH at 6pm. Very nearly 200 years to the day when Keats began writing it.
On Saturday 18 July 1818 Keats was at Inverary, where he wrote to Benjamin Bailey:
“I am certain I have not a right feeling towards women — at this moment, I am striving to be just to them, but I cannot — Is it because they fall so far beneath my boyish Imagination? When I was a schoolboy I thought a fair woman a pure Goddess; my mind was a soft nest in which some one of them slept, though she knew it not. I have no right to expect more than their reality — I thought them ethereal above men — I find them perhaps equal — great by comparison is very small.”
On Saturday 11 July 1818 Keats and Brown had breakfast at Kirkoswald, then visited the remains of Crossraguel Abbey and Baltersan Castle. They spent the night at Ayr, where Keats wrote a sonnet in Burns’s cottage.
“One song of Burns’s is of more worth to you than all I could think for a whole year in his native country. His Misery is a dead weight upon the nimbleness of one’s quill — I tried to forget it — to drink Toddy without any Care — to write a merry sonnet — it won’t do — he talked with Bitches — he drank with Blackguards, he was miserable — We can see horribly clear, in the works of such a Man his whole life, as if we were God’s spies.”
This mortal body of a thousand days
Now fills, O Burns, a space in thine own room,
Where thou didst dream alone on budded bays,
Happy and thoughtless of thy day of doom!
My pulse is warm with thine own barley-bree,
My head is light with pledging a great soul,
My eyes are wandering, and I cannot see,
Fancy is dead and drunken at its goal:
Yet can I stamp my foot upon thy floor,
Yet can I ope thy window-sash to find
The meadow thou hast tramped o’er and o’er,
Yet can I think of thee till thought is blind,
Yet can I gulp a bumper to thy name —
O smile among the shades, for this is fame!
[A thousand days takes us back to 7 April 1815, which was around the time it’s believed that Keats wrote ‘O Solitude, if I must with thee dwell’ – which would be his first published poem.]