When is a Poet’s Cottage not a Poet’s Cottage?.
By G. KIM BLANK.
ALTHOUGH THE TROPE of a poet’s cottage conjures cozy associations with solitudinal reflection and all those impulses from vernal woods, the question posed by the title is not, in this case, to be followed up with an answer via a general cultural or literary survey, tempting though that might be; rather, in this instance, the question takes us to a specific material account of a specific place and time, complete with new, contrary information. In a word, the answer to the question possibly changes received history in the way that a cultural or literary analysis might not.
Thus: When is a poet’s cottage not a cottage? How about when that cottage might not exist—despite the advertising?
To retreat a bit into the more complete answer: the last few years have been bumper for John Keats, our favourite dead, white, male, short Romantic poet,1 with 2021 marking his 226th birthday (on 31 October), and the bicentenary of his agonizing death in Rome (on 23 February 1821) — witnessed and gruesomely recorded by the young artist Joseph Severn, who, at the last moment, was chosen to accompany him from London.
In mid-September 1820, Keats sails to Italy with the falling hope that a Mediterranean climate will save him from the biggest killer of the age, consumption: that lingering, waxing-and-waning airborne disease we now know as tuberculosis or TB. Back then, if you were stuck, it could, with pitiless understatement, just be called “a decline.” The course of the illness is usually slow and, too-often, unstoppable: bad cough, intense fever, spitting blood, failing lungs, weight loss, death. Over the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, it killed something like one person in five. No disease in history has been recorded so much and given so many names.
As a boy, Keats watches his mother die from the illness; so too does his much-beloved youngest brother, Tom, who passes away in his arms in December 1818. Thus Keats pretty well knows what is coming after he coughs up some blood on a late, cold February evening in 1820. With a trained medical eye (he was a fully qualified apothecary), he recognizes what that drop of arterial blood means and immediately pronounces that it is his “death-warrant.” In fact, TB has likely stalked Keats for quite a while: he records a chronic and sometimes debilitating sore throat from about mid-1818; the condition, he writes, “haunts” him.
The tail-end of Keats bicentenary events could not be compromised by a certain determined virus that masked us up for a pandemic of our own. Instead, it spawned zoomed readings and conferences to profitably mull over Keats’s poetry, letters, and life. There’s also been the rolling out of online Keats resources as well as new books about Keats.
Even without a bicentenary, Keats’s narrative is invested with elements that keep us coming back. His story carries the potential of joy forever in the pursuit of beauty, with creative desire drawn out with swiftly emerging genius; on the way, we pass through anguished love and some cultural savaging; and in the end, we arrive at youthful tragedy to place beside the triumph of the artistic will. In truth, it’s an irresistible plotline. Watch Jane Campion’s movie Bright Star (2009) and you’ll get something of the story: in keeping with at least some of the facts, Keats (played by Ben Whishaw) is short, good-looking, and has terrific hair (though they might have given his waves some natural highlights). But even a decent film cannot capture the particular intellectual beauty of a poet, nor can it fully point to why John Keats is still with us at all—capture, that is, what Keats in a letter calls “the poetical Character”:
A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body.”
That would take reading—reading—his poetry, and not hearing it overlaid with sumptuous moving images. But this is nit-picking. The movie is fine, and generally good for the business of poetry, just like advertising a room named after a great poet is good for the rental and real-estate business.
In short, underpinning all of what “Keats” represents is the undeniable, persistent power of his poetry, with almost all of the exceptional work written in 1819—the year his money is running out, his future direction has to be faced, his conflicted love for a certain Miss Fanny Brawne pulls upon him, and his health falters. And then we come to that chilly February night in 1820, and all bets are off.
John, born 31 October 1795, was a London lad if ever there was one. And, in October 1816, once he is introduced into Leigh Hunt’s large, progressive cultural circle (centred in fairly trendy and increasingly suburban Hampstead, and represented in Hunt’s newspaper, The Examiner), his about-to-begin medical career is thrown onto the backburner. Something tells him to become a poet. He has no parents to warn him away from such a barmy idea; and a certain tea merchant called Richard Abbey who manages the family’s inherited money (made via a successful livery stable business developed by his maternal grandparents) lets Keats know that it is a gormless decision. After this, their relationship is uneasy; Keats constantly bows to Abbey to draw dribbles of his ever-dwindling funds. Luckily, Keats also has generous friends.
A CONNECTION WITH Hunt—whose reformist sympathies and unapologetic free-thinking had earlier sent him to jail for few years, making him a cause célèbre—immediately marks young Keats and his poetry as easy targets for those gleefully malevolent and often ingenious critiques, where politics and the personal trump poetics. The most striking originate as Scotch reviewers looking down their Tory noses at that suburbanite, effeminate, liberal bunch mainly in London, with Hunt as their prized quarry, and the scurrilous leader of the Cockney School of Poetry. So after publishing a collection of his early work in 1817 (dedicated to Hunt) that openly draws from borderline juvenilia, and then followed by his random, wandering, and poetically over-cooked Endymion published in 1818 (which Keats publicly, and fully embarrassingly, acknowledges as immature and mawkish), little Mister Johnny wanna-be-Hunt gets a nasty dose of critical comeuppance; Endymion is pronounced “calm, settled, imperturbable drivelling idiocy.” With some inside knowledge, hapless young Keats is mockingly begged to return to his medical training, where he might at least earn an honest living.
There’s still a final collection to come in 1820, mainly assembled by a few close publisher friends. This third volume carries much of the weight of Keats’s reputation, and it underlines the remarkable rapidity of his poetic development. It remains one of the most noteworthy single poetry collections in English, but by the time it widely exposes Keats’s poetic gift into the nineteenth century, mustering comparisons with Shakespeare, Keats is long gone—but, as they say, not forgotten.
Oh, the cottage.
Beyond central London and then later Hampstead, Keats does a little travelling in order to get on with the business of becoming a great poet—to, for example, Oxford, Margate, Canterbury, and Winchester. With his best friend, Charles Brown, Keats also takes an extended northern walking trip through the Lake District (purposefully through Wordsworth territory) and up into Scotland (visiting Robert Burns landmarks). Keats hopes to gather material to bolster his poetic aspirations. For Keats, the trip is curtailed by health problems, but they manage to trek over 400 miles, including a climb of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak (on top of which he writes a so-so poem), as well experiencing abject poverty in Scotland and a quickly aborted trip into northern Ireland, where he sees what he describes as a starving, pipe-smoking, ape-woman, carried about in a kind of doghouse on poles by two rag girls.
Between these various trips, Keats also goes to village of Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, which was on its way to becoming a tourist destination for those seeking the picturesque, or those willing to dip into the trendy medicinal benefits of sea-bathing. As for Keats, the Shanklin Chine, as well as nearby places like Steephill and Bonchurch—and of course all those beaches and cliffs—could potentially provide some inspiration. The main reason for being there is to get on with writing a stage play with Brown in order for Keats to make some badly needed cash.
When Keats first arrives in Shanklin in late June 1819, he’s with a friend, James Rice, who is not very well. They take a small room in Shanklin (or what would have been old Shanklin) at little lodging-house known as Eglantine Cottage. Brown arrives about three weeks later to provide a more melodramatic plot for their play—Otho the Great—while Rice returns to the mainland.
In the end, with Keats’s quick scripting of Brown’s helter-skelter storyline, nothing comes of the play, though, while in Shanklin, Keats does push into some other projects with more lasting poetic value, most notably, Lamia. Brown also makes some sketches on the island, including one of Keats, which, arguably, is the best portrait of him. Keats and Brown leave the island 12 August for Winchester, where he will shortly write his most accomplished poem, “To Autumn.”
Today, as hoteliers, booking agents, real-estate agents, and biographers maintain, Eglantine Cottage exists today as a boutique B&B, and of course it is now called Keats Cottage. You can, it seems, stay in Keats’s very room and, perhaps, soak up some poetic ambiance—consume, as they do say, the “historical charm.” Sounds good, really. To widen your literary experience, you can also bed in rooms named after Lord Bryon, Lord Tennyson, as well as in rooms named after the not-so-lordly Oscar Wilde, Percy Shelley, and William Blake. These others visited the Isle of Wight, though they didn’t stay at the cottage. But close apparently counts.
While no doubt there must have been architectural or structural changes to the original Eglantine Cottage over the last few hundred years, what were those changes? How far did they go? Sometime only facades remain of such older buildings, and sometimes new facades are fit to hold original structures together, or to simply tart them up. Foundation stones can be reused. Sometimes adjoined older cottages are combined into one. Original construction materials (like bricks, beams, or boards) are sometimes recycled back into new construction.
But a few old newspaper reports complicate the story. In fact, they strongly suggest that the old Eglantine Cottage is gone—gone!—that it was taken down in 1873. And here I have to thank the local Shanklin Historical Society, who, after some annoying questioning on my part, put me onto the trail of the (non)existing cottage.
November 1910: in The Isle of Wight Country Press, a story appears about a ceremony in Shanklin to celebrate “Keats’s stay in the town” by affixing two “tablets” to the iron fencing at entrances to the nearby cliff promenade. In is reported that, years earlier, in 1898, the area, once known as “Cliff-green,” had been re-named “Keats Green,” but nothing had been done to physically mark it. But now, a borrowing from Keats’s poetry would announce the place on the new signs: “Keats Green / A Thing of Beauty / Is a Joy Forever / Endymion / John Keats / 1791-1821.” With some pride, the newspaper mentions that “the great poet” had “resided at a little thatched cottage which stood near the site in High-street now occupied by Mr. G. T. Knighton’s and Mr. Horace Mew’s premises.” Attending is a “Mr. Cooper,” who adds how he, “some years ago, to make room for modern improvements, pulled down the old cottage where Keats had lodged. It was Eglantine Cottage, situated near Mr. Mew’s premises.”
Clear enough, so it seems. And that “Mr. Cooper” (first name Francis, 1837-1919) turns out to be a well-known Shanklin builder of the era.
That original re-naming of the green was reported twelve years earlier in the Hampshire Independent, for 15 October 1898. The little story reports on the original proposal “to erect a memorial to Keats” in Shanklin to the “promenade of the cliff”; the “Urban Council” will name it “Keats’ Green” (there’s minor stylistic glitch here over the name: Keats’, Keats—or should it be Keats’s?). A little potted history is supplied: “In 1819 Keats quitted ‘Lawn Bank,’ Hampstead, to join Rice at Shanklin, where, in a cottage (since demolished) near the Cliff Green, he set to work in July, with Charles Armitage Brown, on the tragedy of ‘Otho the Great,” and began his own ‘Lamia’.”
The parentheses house the consequential bit: “since demolished.” Add that to the 1910 “pulled down.”
The impulse to re-name Shanklin’s Cliff Green is aired a few months earlier, in The Queen, The Lady’s Newspaper, for 6 August 1898, where we find a quaintly waggish letter from a Mr. A. Patchett Martin (1851-1902)—poet, literary editor and historian. In the course of recounting how association with a dead, immortal poet might do some good for a “seaside resort,” and that “wandering tribes” of monied tourists would like nothing better than to have note-paper with “Keats’s Green” on it, Mr. Martin mentions how “young obscure” Keats, while in Shanklin, “dwelt in a long since demolished house on or near Cliff Green.” Once more: the d-word.
The ur-piece about Eglantine Cottage’s possible demise dates from early 1873 in a fourth journal, the Isle of Wight Times and Hampshire Gazette. The quaint piece is titled “RECOLLECTIONS OF AN OLD LODGING HOUSE.” The opening sentence sums up the newsworthy information: “The last of the original lodging houses [‘Eglantine Cottage’] of this romantic village [Shanklin] is now being pulled down to make way for modern improvements.” The article in part imagines what the cottage itself might say in facing its own extinction: it would apparently wax about the “great men” who had stayed under its roof. The piece has a few literary gaffes, most notably that the “clever young poet” Keats was “an intimate friend of Lord Byron’s.” Well, they never met, though they had common friends; moreover, Byron had some strikingly nasty and funny comments about Keats’s poetry—trashy “p-ss a bed poetry” and vulgar “mental masturbation”—and for his part, Keats thought that what Byron achieved in his work was easier than what he aspired to his own poetry. There’s no doubt a bit of closeted jealously from the unknown poet about the hyper celebrity of his older contemporary, and, not surprisingly, there’s some dismissive class snobbery on Byron’s part.
Well, in the end, who knows? Maybe the old cottage was only partly “pulled down” or only partly “demolished,” though “demolished” is not really a half-way descriptor. Maybe the current B&B simply sits on the original site. But given that the writers of these pieces were, as they say, on the spot, must give some pause. The cottage could, alas, be fully gone, despite present signage.
Meanwhile, circumstances might require a top-to-bottom archaeological examination so that biographers, hoteliers, booking agents, tourists, and realtors can appropriately frame this new uncertainty about a poet’s cottage that is or just was. Maybe it’s just a cottage of the mind.
Some of us, however, might prefer to promote digging up Keats’s grave in the Protestant cemetery in Rome in order to parse its contents. No, not the body—but gifts and others bits buried with him, including unopened letters from that intriguing Miss Brawne to this, the most enduring of poets, short or otherwise, with or without a cottage in the very pleasant sea-side village of Shanklin on the Isle of Wight.
G. Kim Blank is a professor of English Literature at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. He has written and edited books on William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, and nineteenth-century English poetry. He is the author of an online biography of Keats: Mapping Keats Progress.
- His poetry is collected here, among other online places.—Ed.