In our “Romanticism Beyond the Academy” series, we invite literature-lovers to reflect on the significance of Romantic-era writers and ideas in the contemporary world and in their own lives. In the following interview, freelance author Suzie Grogan discusses her lifelong fascination with Keats and how it inspired her new book, John Keats: Poetry, Life & Landscapes, which will be released in January 2021.
Q&A with Suzie Grogan, author of John Keats: Poetry, Life & Landscapes
Interview by Mariam Wassif
Charcoal drawing of Keats by Joseph Severn
How did you first become interested in Keats? What drew you to his work?
I first became interested in Keats in the mid-1970s when I was about 12, when a children’s TV show (Blue Peter) did a ‘special’ on writer’s houses and chose Wentworth Place in Hampstead. Something in his story must have resonated so strongly with me that I was willing to spend my holiday money on a collection of his poetry (which is still by the side of my bed). I soon followed that with the purchase of a paperback edition of the Robert Gittings biography and I was away! I was lucky that Keats was on my school A Level syllabus, but by then I knew as much about him as my teachers.
I studied law rather than English Lit (which I regret now) but continued to read every book on Keats I could find – often at the expense of my studies of stuffy books on contract law. By this time, I had moved on to reading literary criticism of his work. It really has (almost) been a lifetime of study.
What do you think Keats has to offer readers in 2021?
I think Keats has remained so popular precisely because his life and work remains relevant today and continue to draw young people to him. I believe his letters have much to do with that. They are so wise, and in reading and re-reading them one quite forgets they were written by a man only in his early 20s. Many of the inspirational quotes one sees on social media are reflections of his words, and he is so mindful. The love of beauty in all things, the willingness to live with uncertainty and become as one with nature and forget oneself is a healthy aim, even if Keats himself struggled at times. Keats endured periods of intense anxiety and, perhaps, clinical depression, so his words continue to speak to us in the 21st century, when so much is uncertain and we need people with whom we can identify. He lived through turbulent times, reflected in his work.
I place his poetry above Shelley’s now, and well above that of Byron. But that is a personal choice. What is important is that the Romantics are not seen as irrelevant – they influenced, and continue to influence poets, songwriters, authors and artists today. Graphic novels, films, art installations – creative young people still embrace the ideals and stories they told.
How would you describe the structure of the book?
I have had such wonderful pre-publication reviews that my nervousness about the structure has dissipated a little, but it is still by no means a standard approach. Over the years I have ‘followed’ Keats to the places that feature most strongly in his life story – Hampstead of course, the Lake District and Scotland, Isle of Wight, Teignmouth, Oxford, Chichester, Winchester and lastly Rome. In the book I write about his time spent in those places, how they have changed over the years and how they continue to embrace Keats. I go right back to the letters he wrote from and about those places, quoting and highlighting how they are influenced by his surroundings and how the experiences influenced his poetry. There is such a wealth of wonderful biography and literary work out there I wanted to bring a fresh perspective. Keats has been with me through some very difficult periods in my life, sustaining me, so in following his path I highlight the value of landscape and poetry to us all, as human beings. In following Keats, we find the real man – not the stereotypical frail Romantic poet, dying young, but a robust and fiery young man, who endured the rigours of medical training, who had strong views on the historic and social events of his time and a zest for life and love that was cut short by a horrible disease. Reviews have mentioned how one feels one really gets to know Keats the man through the book, which was one of my main aims.
What audience did you have in mind for this book? Was it important for you to write a book that was accessible to the general public rather than just academics?
Absolutely, although it was important that it was also original and offered information a reader might not have come across before. I have read some work that simply talks to itself and dread that being the only Keats a reader might encounter. Much modern study and writing on Keats and the Romantics is lively and interesting so I hope my book can also signpost people to other work that can take their interest deeper. I am very happy that reviews mention how detailed my knowledge is and how comprehensive, up to date and accurate my research is though.
How do you understand Keats’s relationship to place?
The letters Keats writes to friends and family are packed full of his impressions of time and place and how they impact on his mood. The weather, the landscape, the room he occupies – all affect, to a greater or lesser extent, his ability to write and to feel more or less confident in his work. His letters from Teignmouth, for example, are some of his most memorable, yet he was cramped in rooms with an extremely sick brother whilst the rain was teeming down outside, and the beauties of Devon were shrouded in mist. He could write little poetry, but his letters are full of phrases that have gone down in English literary history: ‘I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments…’ and ‘axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses: We read fine things but never feel them to the full until we have gone the same steps as the Author.’[i]
The weather oppresses him, he jokes to Haydon about Devon’s ‘urinal qualifications’[ii] and says to Reynolds ‘I lay awake last night—listening to the Rain with a sense of being drown’d and rotted like a grain of wheat.’[iii]
I thought it was important to look at ‘landscape’ in a wider sense. We are all affected by our environment and Keats was acutely aware of his surroundings, right up until his death as he stared at the ceiling in Rome.
Joseph Francis Gilbert, Chichester Cathedral
What are some of your favorite poems and/or lines, and why? Are there any particular lines and/or poems that anchor the book?
It is that line, following on from the axioms quote, in the letter to Reynolds of 3rd of May from Teignmouth that anchors the book ‘We read fine things but never feel them to the full until we have gone the same steps as the Author.’ I have done that, comparing the landscape 200 years ago to that we experience today, and it opened my eyes to new aspects of Keats life and poetry.
My favourite poem as a 12-year-old was ‘When I have fears…’ and it remains close to my heart now. It speaks to me as a writer as few other poems do (and I do read other poets!). ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ offers so much to a reader – you can close read it and find imagery and allusion to fill days of pleasurable discovery, or simply read it and roll the beautiful syllables around your mouth – ‘With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, / And purple-stained mouth’ is pure sensuous pleasure. There are lines in ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ that do the same: ‘Out went the taper as she hurried in; / Its little smoke, in pallid moonshine, died’ is one of many that set the heart beating a little faster, and I adore that it was thought a poem unfit for ladies.
I think ‘Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards, / And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul’ at the end of ‘To Sleep’ are very powerful lines and come to me often in periods of lockdown insomnia.
I also adore ‘Touch has a memory.’ It is so simple, but so powerful.
How do you think this book helps readers understand Keats differently? What are the key insights you’d like readers to take away?
I was thrilled when Eleanor Fitzsimon, author of Wilde’s Women and biographer of E. Nesbitt and a pre-publication reviewer, wrote ‘“Grogan challenges flawed depictions of a fey and sickly Keats, and gives us instead a robust young man, playful, with a keen sense of humour and an insatiable passion for life. Through excerpts from his intensely moving letters to family and friends, she reveals Keats as “a poet of movement, of experience and of life.”’ That sort of sums it up really! I have been frustrated over the years that for many, Keats is the archetypal frail Romantic poet crushed by reviewers. Many didn’t know he trained for years to be surgeon apothecary and worked in the most horrendous conditions in Guy’s Hospital, London. I wanted people to see Keats the man, as well as the poet, the author of wonderful letters (and not only those letters written to Fanny Brawne, which towards the end of his life are testament to the horrors of tuberculosis).
You’ve written in the past about Keats and mental health, and it’s been quite a year of struggle for just about everyone! What solace do you think Keats’s poetry has to offer?
It has been, and still is, a time that is a struggle for everyone, including many who previously thought themselves immune to mental health issues. I may have covered this in previous paragraphs, but I do think there is much about poetry in general that can offer solace at a time like this. As Keats himself said: ‘Poetry should… strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.’[iv] Poetry distills emotion, speaks more powerfully than prose and can literally echo our own thoughts in the fewest possible words. Keats does this for me, as do some later and contemporary poets. I wanted to emphasise the importance of poetry in the book – as I believe there is a poet for everyone, even though some people happily say they ‘hate’ it. I believe they just haven’t found ‘their’ poet.
What is the most surprising thing you learned about Keats in the course of writing this book?
I think it was wonderful to go right back to the beginning – to his letters and from his earliest poetry – and gain a real sense of his development as a poet, and as a man. He suffered so much loss in his short life, and it is easy to forget he was still only 25 when he died – a year younger than my daughter. He wrote as he thought and one can feel his excitement, despair, longing as he writes – in his punctuation (or lack of it). He was a philosopher, there is no doubt about that, and he can be read as such. He was wise, but vulnerable and the juxtaposition of deep thought with his love of witty and ribald comedy and then his deep pain has a profound effect on the reader. Fine biographies, like the latest by Nicholas Roe, can give you a real sense of the man, but it by reading his own words that you feel you know him.
Statue of Keats in Chichester
Because of his image as a doomed poet, people often overlook Keats’s sense of humor. Do you have any favorite Keats jokes?
I love the reference to Devon’s ‘urinal’ qualities! He endured three months of almost solid rain there. His letters, especially those to Tom, from the lake District and Scotland are also full of efforts to cheer his brother up. Some of my favourite lines are from his letter to his much younger sister too – from Winchester he says, ‘We are qui[e]t—except a fiddle that now and then goes like a gimlet through my Ears—Our Landlady’s Son not being quite a Proficient.’[v]
He can be quite ribald, and young man about town occasionally, and poems like ‘O blush not so…’ are less funny now, certainly to me as a woman, than they would have been when Keats wrote them. I do love the idea that he wrote the tiny ‘Give me women, wine and snuff…’ on the front of fellow pupil Henry Stephens’s textbook when they were studying medicine. Henry Stephens was unpleasant about Keats later, sounding stuffy and bitter. Despite his painting of Keats as a poor student, Keats passed his exams first time, whilst Stephens didn’t…
[i] Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 May 1818. All references are to The Letters of John Keats, ed. H.E. Rollins, Harvard UP, 1958.
[ii] Letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon, 21 March 1818.
[iii] Letter to Reynolds, 27 April 1818.
[iv] Letter to John Taylor, 27 February 1818.
[v] Letter to Fanny Keats, 28 August 1819.
About the Author
Suzie Grogan is a freelance writer in the fields of literary and social history. She is the author of Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health (Pen and Sword, 2014) and Death Disease & Dissection: The Life of a Surgeon Apothecary 1750-1850 (Pen and Sword, 2017) also inspired by her lifelong study of John Keats.
Suzie writes regularly for national magazines and is a contributor to The Wordsworth Trust’s Romanticism Blog and others focusing on the Romantic Movement. She has written widely on the subject of mental health and focuses on how art and landscape can combine to inspire and nurture.
Suzie now lives in Brittany with her husband and rescue dogs, Teddy and Holly.