Jane Austen and John Keats: Once Upon a Time in Winchester

Jane Austen and John Keats: Once Upon a Time in Winchester

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By Stuart Mitchner

Like Shakespeare, Austen invented us. Because we are Austen’s children, we behold and confront our own anguish and our own fantasies in her novels.

–Harold Bloom (1930-2019)

Pointing out how “the strong selves” of Jane Austen’s heroines attest to her “reserves of power,” Bloom imagines that “had she not died so soon, she would have been capable of creating a Shakespearean diversity of persons, despite her narrowly limited social range of representation.”

Austen (1775-1817) died in Winchester 205 years ago Monday, July 18. Two years later, in August 1819, John Keats (1795-1821) arrived in that “exceeding pleasant town,” where he took daily walks, admired “the beauty of the season,” took advantage of the library, and composed “To Autumn,” his “perfect poem,” according to Harold Bloom, and the “most perfect shorter poem in the English language.” In the introduction to Bloom’s updated Modern Critical Views edition of Keats (Chelsea House, 2007), he finds the poem’s “definitive vision” all the more “remarkable for the faint presence of the shadows of the poet’s hell that the poem tries to exclude.”

American Shadows

Regarding the “shadows” in “To Autumn,” Bloom quotes from “Lines to Fanny,” a poem written some weeks later in London in which Keats attempts to “banish thoughts of that most hateful land, … that wicked strand,” that “monstrous region” whose “winds, all zephyrless, hold scourging rods / Iced in the great lakes, to afflict mankind….”

Yes, he’s talking about America’s great lakes. 

Time to take a few giant steps back to the ninth century when Winchester was “Wintanceaster,” and Alfred was King of Wessex, and I was in the clutches of a Netflix series called The Last Kingdom (2015-2022), five seasons of sheer excitement, of crashing shields and swords, and warriors and beautiful witches and Saxons and Danes on a rampage. Such was my subject, such were my heroes — Alfred, the conflicted Christian king and Uhtred, his pagan nemesis and savior — until I slipped through a hole in the fabric of the ages, landing in Winchester on a beautiful September day in 1970. From there, where else could a literary tourist invented by Jane Austen go but back to 1819 and the true heroes of the moment, the authors of Pride and Prejudice and “Ode On a Grecian Urn.”

Now, instead of comparing The Last Kingdom to Game of Thrones, with its dragons and white walkers, beheadings and red weddings, I’m turning a corner online and suddenly the late Harold Bloom’s showing me a poem Keats wrote to his love Fanny Brawne, a broadside aimed at America, where his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana were defrauded “and live a wrecked life.” My plan had been to escape from a country gone off the rails into a dream of Winchester, where Keats found autumn and my wife and I enjoyed a day-long walk through the Itchen River valley (now branded for tourists the “Keats Walk”). No sooner do I imagine myself free of the unprecedented heat and toxic haze of July 2022, in a temperate clime where “the air is worth sixpence a pint,” here comes Keats from 200 years ago envisioning the “rank-grown forests, frosted, black, and blind” of America, where “flowers have no scent, birds no sweet song, / And great unerring Nature once seems wrong.” What Bloom reads as Keats’s “fanciful depiction of an unknown America” feels more like a wake-up call from an unwitting climate change prophet.

The Beautiful Season

Keats biographer Robert Gittings sets the scene: “In the soft Autumn days at Winchester Keats looked back over his whole life … as the familiar shapes of field and tree restored his broken calm. He went for a daily walk, strolling down by the west front of the Cathedral, past the clergy building, down College Street where Jane Austen had died two years before, ‘along a country alley of gardens’ to the monastery of St. Cross, set in its beautiful water-meadows…. It was one of those magical times in Keats’s life when, against all odds, his surroundings, his reading, and his own inner resources seemed to give him all he needed for the greatest poetry. ‘I am surprized myself at the pleasure I live alone in,’ he commented. And it was in this mood, on Sunday 19 September, that he wrote “To Autumn.”

Two days later in a letter, to J.H. Reynolds, Keats describes the weather surrounding the poem’s conception: “How beautiful the season is now — How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. … I never like stubble fields so much as now — Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm — in the same way that some pictures look warm — this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.”

“Persuasion” Is Looming

Possibly the last recorded reference Jane Austen makes to her work is in a letter from 23 March 1817, to her spirited niece Fanny Knight, which is also the liveliest passage I could find in her last letters: “You are the oddest Creature! — Nervous enough in some respects, but in others perfectly without nerves! — Quite unrepulsible, hardened & impudent.” Apparently the situation under discussion centered on a gentleman of doubtful literary judgment. “He and I should not in the least agree of course, in our ideas of Novels and Heroines; — pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked…. And he deserves better treatment than to be obliged to read any more of my Works.” At this point she hints at having another book “ready for publication. You will not like it, so you need not be impatient. You may perhaps like the Heroine as she is almost too good for me…” The novel referred to will be published later that year as Persuasion, a title chosen by Jane’s brother Henry after her death. Since she spoke of the novel as The Elliots, according to family tradition, some critics believe that’s probably the title she planned for it. Henry Austen’s subsequent “Biographical Notice” of his sister at last revealed her identity to the world; she was no longer an anonymous author. But the burial slab in Winchester Cathedral contained only her name and dates at the time, so that when Keats explored the “fine Cathedrall which to me is always a source of amusement, part of it built 1400 years ago,” he would have most likely walked past her last resting place without a thought.

Austen and “To Autumn”

Rereading “To Autumn,” I’ve been trying to imagine what Jane Austen, whose favorite poet was William Cowper, might find to admire in it. She would surely appreciate the directness of the style, the sense of unforced observation. In the context of nature, “conspiring” is a word likely to get the attention of the creator of Emma, who might also have been responsive to lines like “Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind” or “Drowsed with the fume of poppies.” But surely when she came to the last stanza, she’d cross from reading to experience, watching “While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, / And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue” and hearing, “Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn / Among the river sallows, borne aloft / Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies.” 

And is the “wailful choir” where Bloom imagines shadows of “the poet’s hell?” Or is it “the last oozings, hours by hours” of “the cider-press”?

A Sort of Hush

If you come to Jane Austen’s death bed in the “neat little drawing-room with a bow window” overlooking a Winchester garden directly from the sound and fury of The Last Kingdom’s ancient Wintanceaster, there’s a residual hush as you read Cassandra’s letter, of how her sister “was seized again with the same faintness, which was followed by the sufferings she could not describe.” After the doctor “had applied something to give her ease, she was in a state of quiet insensibility” and “from that time till half-past four, when she ceased to breathe, she scarcely moved a limb… A slight motion of the head with every breath remained till almost the last.”

“All in a Mist”

Could Austen, Bloom’s “inventor” of us all, have invented Keats? No, not even a Shakespeare could have invented Keats. Only the poet himself has access to the requisite “Negative Capability.” In his letter to Reynolds, with its reference to the composition of “To Autumn,” Keats inadvertently echoes the ode’s first line, “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”: “Tonight I am all in a mist; I scarcely know what’s what.”

Thus the image of Winchester in a season of mists shown here, from the cover of Tom Beaumont James’s Pictorial History.

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