Sunday, October 11, 2015

John Keats (yes, that John Keats): Mountaineer

Say you’re going to climb Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK that rises 4,409 feet from sea level. Imagine the gear you’d take: probably carabineers, ice ax, helmet, crampons, mountain boots, and trekking poles—for starters.

Now imagine you’re John Keats. What did this London born-and-bred poet bring to the task? An old coat, a large tartan wrap, fur hat, walking stick, a guide with whiskey, and Charles Brown, a good friend who advised him to buy a knapsack. In it he carried three volumes of Dante’s Divine Comedy, pens, paper, and ink—so he could write a sonnet when he got to the top. Of Course.

In the summer of 1818 Keats and Brown began a walking tour of northern England and Scotland that ended for Keats in the Highlands after the difficult ascent and even more treacherous descent of Ben Nevis. What drove this aspiring English Romantic poet? On a physical and psychological quest, Keats turned from books to experience, from reading to walking some of the most challenging and sublime terrain in Great Britain, if not the world. 

In Letter 71, June 25- 27, he wrote his brother Tom of viewing the mountains in the Lake Country. “I have an amazing partiality for mountains in the clouds.” He continues: “The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance. I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever.” 

By July 18 – 22 in Letter 79 from Inverary he wrote to his friend Benjamin Bailey of his aspirations and sense of accomplishment. “I should not have consented to myself these four Months tramping in the highlands but that I thought it would give me more experience, rub off more Prejudice, use (me) to more hardship, identify finer scenes [sic] load me with grander Mountains, and strengthen more my reach in Poetry, than would stopping at home among Books even thought I should reach Homer. By this time I am comparatively a mountaineer.” [emphasis added]

The psychological aspect of his quest becomes apparent in the oft-referenced Letter 64 to John Hamilton Reynolds in which he explains his concept of the “Chamber of Maiden-Thought” wherein lies  the “sharpening [of] one’s vision into the heart and nature of Man—of convincing one’s nerves that the world is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression—whereby this Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open—but all dark—all leading to dark passages—We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a mist,” deep within a “Mystery.”

Keats pressed on, walking twenty miles or more a day to Ben Nevis, often enduring wretched weather, foul lodging, and a sickening diet of eggs and oatcakes. In August he wrote to Tom that Nevis is “the highest Mountain in Great Britain—On that account I will never ascend another in this empire—Skiddaw is nothing to it either in height or in difficulty” (Letter 81). Starting at five o’clock in the morning, Keats, Brown, and guide made three difficult ascents through cloud and mist, over and around crags, pausing at chasms up to 1500 feet deep to toss stones to their cloud- covered depths. They clambered over loose stones, large and small, often using all hands and feet, plus sticks, to achieve their goal.  

And what did he do when he reached the top? He wrote a sonnet—even though he was suffering from a dangerous cold and ulcerated throat—the illness that would force the poet to abandon his travels with Brown and head home to Hampstead Heath.

Read me a lesson, Muse, and speak it loud
   Upon the top of Nevis, blind in Mist!
 I look into the Chasms and a shroud
    Vaprous doth hide them; just so much I wist
 Mankind do know of Hell: I look o'erhead,
    And there is sullen Mist; even so much
 Mankind can tell of Heaven: Mist is spread
    Before the Earth beneath me—even such
 Even so vague is Man's sight of himself.
    Here are the craggy Stones beneath my feet;
 Thus much I know, that a poor witless elf,
    I tread on them; that all my eye doth meet
 Is Mist and Crag—not only on this height
 But in the world of thought and mental might—
            (included in Letter 81)

Keats would be the last to claim this piece met his high standards for a sonnet. After all, his mentors were Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth. However, it demonstrates the he was true to his calling and that the physical and mental quest had coalesced. Keats climbed—and crawled—his way through a world of “Mist and Crag” that embodied his inner mystery. What courage it took to persevere. Keats had been to the mountain top and thence renewed his quest to write poetry worthy of his mentors. He succeeded beyond his fondest dreams. Here’s to a true mountaineer.

(All the referenced letters were published in Letters of John Keats, ed. Frederick Page, Oxford Univ. Press, Amen House, London, E.C. 4, 1954.)