The Keats Walk
(Books Ireland, 1980)
“You may wonder why the grass
Nothing is green but thinking makes it so.
You may ask why flies fly into cream.
Have they any better place to go?”
Bridget, Brian, Winchester and me. Swans on the river. I am agitated, defending the reputation of Henry James. My two friends are nearly twice my age. Brian drools with amusement. Bridget is irritated. ‘Augustus, stop for a moment. You’re ignoring the scenery.’ I am a dam of resentments. Swans, I saw the swans. Instead, I slapstick. ‘The Keats Walk is a music-hall turn. Watch me.’
I dance along on one foot. Bridget is diverted. Brian titters, ‘That’s the Byron Walk.’ Rolling his shoulders and shuffling from side to side. ‘Keats is Popeye.’
Today’s Sunday paper had a supplement on Henry James’s life. I saw red. Pigeonholing so strange a bird while ignoring his work is a trivial pursuit. He himself said ‘Everyone in life is incomplete, but a foolish desire is felt to fill them out, to justify them. The private life of a writer lies in his work.’ Bridget calms me down. ‘It’s just tittle-tattle. Who cares, who cares?’
I had mislaid my pipe and am petulant. A foray into the prissy side-streets of Winchester (‘excessively maiden-lady-like’, Keats) came up with cherry pine, too hot to smoke. Strange that a gun should be called after this town, I say to change the subject. Brian replies, ‘Not so. The military like cozy places with nice scenery. Destroying the beautiful is more satisfying than the ugly’.
We cross the River Itchen by a towpath bridge, single file. Oak planks newly splinted torque with our weight. John Keats fell in here. Last through, I open the style gate, stand back and usher imaginary grandparents. ‘What are you doing?’ Bridget calls to Brian. He is crouched by a hollow trunk, teasing out something sticky with a switch. ‘Honey’. He tastes the tip. ‘A swarm was here’. She bustles over, interested. Nature is wonderful. Her largeness covers his spare spryness. He is explaining, making her taste. Their huddle makes me think of Beatrix Potter. Peter and mother rabbit.
Coming out of town we pass a cluster of toadstool cottages embowered in briar-rose. ‘Almshouses’, Bridget explains, ‘for the Deserving Poor.’ A latticed window is thrown open, and a jack-in-the-box Chelsea Pensioner type leans out and empties a teapot. Big face - half frog, half boy - no neck, scruffy livery, the personification of confirmed bachelorhood.
Gossip was a passion Keats and James had in common. Both socialised extensively to feed ‘the spinster’s vice’. Keats went on hikes and bashes with the boys. Catching chit chat and scandal from tongues loosened by ale and late nights. He made himself smaller in order to decoy indiscretions. Henry was a serial diner-out who sat with the ladies, drawing them out through dedicated listening, attentive to the fencing of rumour with hard facts, enjoying the bitchy maneuvers, the carried-away matrons blithely compromising themselves. Giving nothing away himself - a reliable ear makes for conservation of the tongue - he was the ideal confidant.
Both put the gossip to work in their writing. Henry, the philosopher's son from New York, blatantly channeled the old girl’s talk into his fictions. John, the stable-keeper’s son, more discretely worked the boys’ prattle into letters.
Keats, himself, did not live long enough to make for interesting gossip. What can you say about a twenty-six-year-old? His adolescent longings vibrate for every schoolboy in his poems. The moves to woo Fanny Brawne were unrequited rites-of-passage, his friend, the brother, the Trojan horse. Chronicles of tubercular youths are more or less the same. Fleshly passions made platonic by nascent intellectualism. John Keats escaped that. Having had to make a living as a surgical dresser helped. Putting flesh back on bone gave him poems whose voluptuousness have more beauty than truth.
James’s life spanned eight decades. ‘Turning his back’ on emotional ties is the predominant motif and metaphor in his writings. The reasons may intrigue literary snoopers, but the trail is dead. He was a patent workaholic in sensible boots. Edmund Gosse observed his ‘juvenile virility’. That’s about it.
Thought my blood was up at the notion of Henry James’s work as some sort of sublimation, the foregoing thoughts, reordering many conversations with Brian, restored my beautiful temperament. The tranquility of our afternoon stroll was not to be threatened. I had a few years on Keats, and Brian was old enough to be James’s younger brother. Only deference on my part could mean agreement. In short, I knew that Brian and Bridget have enough self-assertive children on their hands, and I opted for peaceable distractions, concentrating my mind on the purple-tinted bulrushes, the easy flow of the mature river and the swans. I begin to count them and decide there is at least nine-and-fifty, but don’t tell Brian. He can’t abide Yeats, And as a math’s teacher was likely to correct me by engaging in a qualitative sampling technique.
Prompted by church bells, Brian is telling Bridget about the Children of Lir. It all began in pagan Ireland. The children were turned into swans by their stepmother. The bell ring of an early Christian church turned them back into humans. A monk called Mochaomhog baptised the nine-hundred-year-old returnees. They died instantly. Swans again, they flap into the clouds.
Brian mentions a version in which Lir is spelt ‘Lear’. Three daughters are sold to the fairies for their singing voices and are turned into birds. Hundreds of years flying around chirping is no fun. Unseasonable waters, uncertain diet. I have heard his account before and drift off the back of the party. Phrases come and go in the wind. ‘Mull of Kintyre’. ‘Human form’. ‘Old and shrivelled’. ‘Nine hundred’. Who’s counting? More than eighty swans now, and I don’t include the chicks fluffing beside them. (Are they called goslings? I should ask Bridget who knows all about nature). ‘Ten thousand at one glance’. I think to myself. But that was daffodils. Wordsworth. It’s that sort of afternoon.
The Gaelic for swan is eala. E-a-l-a. Onomatopoeic and the same S-shaped sweep from pate to gizzard, a nape word. The gender of the Children of Lir is disputed. In one version, three daughters and one son became on release one daughter and three sons. Maybe they themselves were uncertain of their sexual identity, given their age. I won’t be saying that to Bridget. She is a Catholic convert and a mother eight (three boys and five girls, I think).
The bells for evensong chime and the swans in unison wheel and agitate into flight. Bridget, Brian and myself watch their fishbone formation. It dies in the sky. We stay looking up, the bell beat still ringing in our ears. Bridget declaims, ‘Swans, swans...they are so… heraldic’. The remark is both true and ridiculous. Brian laughs. I join in. Bridget asks, ‘Why are you laughing?’
Swans are heraldic. The myths are not about them. Only us poor forked creatures uneasily poised at a point in time. Forget Hans Christian. They are not wild ducks made good. Swans did not need to evolve, arriving by the grace of nature in perfect shape. Gosse’s father, the Darwinist divine, was wrong. Bells are about time, ringing changes - births, marriages, deaths and evening devotions. No wonder swans are disturbed by church bells and fly off - to somewhere timeless. Their wings echo the bells.
No need to say anything, we all agree!
In the tea-rooms, scones crowned with Cornish cream, raspberry jam dripping. The tables throng with tweedy ramblers. Plump waddlers and skinny twitchers, all tucking in. Bridget and Brian too. I am still thinking of Henry James. Our walk was after lunch. He would have approved. John Keats would not, preferring a lie-down. The tea sets are floral and dinky. Wedding presents perhaps from a previous generation. I yearn for a mug after my third cup.
Towards the end of Henry James’ The Sacred Font the plot is turned upside-down. Events contradict the narrator’s expectations and he berates himself. You have allowed yourself to be carried away by hearsay and presumption. The novel sweats ink.
His vocation as a writer had been threatened by something else. The prospect of Another Life - marriage to some lady or other. In his letters he frantically denied rumours, protesting too much perhaps. Jane Austin, who almost became Mrs Black Whitter, would have understood. Novelists should remain celibate. It is the calling of a hopeless gossip, a hunter gatherer of human foibles. It is in the blood. Hemophiliacs shouldn’t marry either.
In Henry James the authorial voice occasionally sinks helplessly to his boots. The work is most generous and powerful at such moments. The Beast in the Jungle makes me feel better knowing I’m exactly a hundred years younger than him. John Keats is more inclined to help himself but there isn’t enough left to go around. I won’t be telling Bridget that I’m nearly three years older than Keats. He means something special to her.
In the tea-room everybody is talking and at the same time. Ding-dong, a human carillon. A good time being had. Bridget raises her voice to a flute solo reading from her Oxford guidebook. Keats writes to his brother, three years before his death. ‘I am in the square outside our tea-rooms watching Morris dancers. They kickit and jumpit with mettle extraordinary, and whiskit and fiskit, and toed it and go’d it, and twirl’d it and whirl’d it, and stamped it and sweated it, tattooing the flagstones like mad. I was extremely gratified to think that, if I had pleasures they knew nothing of, they had also some into which I could not possibly enter.’
‘I didn’t know Keats could be so profound’, I say weakly.
‘Or so condescending’, says Brian.
‘I don’t quite understand’, says Bridget. ‘Poor boy. He didn’t have much of a life’.
Henry James always wanted to be the young man in the canary waistcoat quietly strumming a mandolin on the fringes of a Watteau picnic within hearing distance of the ladies.
I am in eternity enjoying afternoon tea with my friends Brian and Bridget.