May’s Magnificence with John Keats

May’s Magnificence with John Keats

These are my favourite woods beside the river Arun. Last year we came here with ‘A Spring day with John Clare. This time I’m out with John Keats and seeing this familiar landscape through his eyes.

John Keats in May

Portrait of John Keats
by Joseph Severn
oil on canvas, 1821-1823
NPG 58
© National Portrait Gallery, London

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,

The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves

From ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.

May’s magnificence as the English countryside begins to put on its full summer display has always inspired poetry. Not least with John Keats. Keats only lived 25 years and wrote a mere 54 poems, but what a huge legacy he has left us. In the cold days of winter we dreamt with him about spring and summer to come in the poem Fancy. Now, as the temperature rises, we are with him in the fragrant beauty of a May evening amidst the May blossom of hawthorn, violets and musk roses. As summer ends we will be turning to him in autumn for his wonderful ‘To Autumn‘ with its ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness‘.

Arun river waterside scene

Today the river Arun is in peaceful mood as it winds its way through the rushes and beside the over-hanging willows. With Keats we:

Linger awhile upon some bending planks
That lean against a streamlet’s rushy banks,
And watch intently Nature’s gentle doings:
They will be found softer than ring-dove’s cooings.
How silent comes the water round that bend;
Not the minutest whisper does it send
To the o’erhanging sallows:

…..A little noiseless noise among the leaves,
Born of the very sigh that silence heaves:

From ‘I Stood Tiptoe on a little Hill’.
Photo of John Keats' house
Wentworth Place, now the Keats House museum, Hampstead Heath, London — photo by Alphauser

That magical moment in Keats’ garden here in Hampstead has now become world famous through his masterpiece ‘Ode to a Nightingale‘.

Woods over-looking the Arun river valley


These favourite woods in the Arun valley, coming into their May glory, are full of birdsong. The sound reflects from this ‘hangar, clinging to the chalk cliff, back into the valley in the stillness of early morning. Sometimes there are nightingales in this valley. As I stand here listening, wistfully wondering why that sound has largely vanished from our landscape, the sense of loss rings in Keats’ words:

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fade
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

Fled is that music‘, but not entirely, for this glorious sound can still be heard again here in Sussex and especially in the scrubland at Knepp. To listen, scroll down to Podcast Episode 1 at Knepp Wilding.

Cows in a field of grass


John Clare was critical of Keats’ ‘city- dweller’s’ view of nature in his poetry. But though Keats was not a man of the fields like Clare, his imagination so brilliantly took him there – and today his poetry still takes us there too! Here are his own words:

‘the setting of Imagery should, like the sun, seem natural to him, shine over him, and set soberly, although in magnificence, leaving him in the luxury of twilight…. if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’

Keats’ letter to his publisher John Taylor 1818

Like John Clare, Keats had a troubled life. Losing his parents when he was young he was always short of money, yet he gave up a career in medicine to become a poet. But his life was cut short, plagued by tuberculosis caught when caring for his brother and he was unable to marry his beloved Fanny. Small wonder that his verse is often full of a sense of melancholy and self-doubt:

“I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d.

John Keats

How very wrong he was! How grateful we are for his exquisite poetry – ‘a thing of beauty and a joy forever’. His presence with us today has enriched our walk. Why not end our walk here at the peaceful riverside Black Rabbit pub and drink a toast to the memory of John Keats.

The 'Black Rabbit' pub beside the river

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