John Keats and Winchester

Though Winchester makes no named appearance in To Autumn, its presence runs through these lines of Keats’s as surely as the River Itchen flows among the water meadows to the south of the city on its way towards Southampton. The rich, loaded autumnal verses which were inspired by his daily walks here have made the resulting ode one of the most anthologised poems in the English language.

The River Itchen as it flows among the water meadows to the south of the city. Photo: Ruth Gledhill

During his brief time in the city – less than eight weeks between August and October 1819, on his way back from a visit to the Isle of Wight – he completed the most creative period of his intense and tragically short life. If he is to be cast as a young man in a hurry, there is a brutal logic; his younger brother Tom had died of tuberculosis the previous year, and his mother, already widowed, succumbed to the same illness when John was eight.

As a former medical student, and licensed apothecary, his own fears of sharing a similar fate were only too well founded, and he was indeed to die at twenty-five in Rome, to where he had migrated for its kinder weather. Not long before leaving England, he self-diagnosed with dire accuracy, pointing to his blood-stained handkerchief and telling his house mate Charles Brown it was his death warrant. “It is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour.”

So it’s hardly  surprising that death took up such a dogged residency in his thoughts and in his writing; nor that he should tell the reader of Ode to a Nightingale, written in the spring of that year, that “for many a time I have been half in love with easeful death.”

Along what is now known as the Keats Walk in Winchester, you can sense that the young poet was simultaneously courting death’s adversary, breath, with as much  vigour as his body would allow. On Sunday September 5th 1819, exactly two weeks before the composition of To Autumn, he writes to his publisher John Taylor, gently berating him for having remained for so long in Fleet Street, “breathing poison,” and telling him that there is, close to Winchester, “a dry chalky down, where the air is worth Sixpence a pint.” This is usually taken as a reference to St. Giles’s Hill, in the east of the town, also a frequent destination of his walks. 

In Winchester today there is almost a cottage industry of speculation about Keats’s whereabouts during his stay, and indeed his exact route on the day of the poem’s composition.

His letters written from there to friends offer tantalising hints, but little more. None bears the address from which he writes. If it had been his intention to conceal his exact location, he could hardly have done a better job. In one, to his girlfriend and fiancée-to-be, Fanny Brawne, on August 16, he mentions the facing prospect of a “blank side of a house,” welcome to him as it offered nothing to distract him from writing in his first floor room. “My love is selfish,” he would tell her two months later. “I cannot breathe without you.” 

Writing to his friend Richard Woodhouse on September 21s,t, he says he is “in a Lodging house.” From his description of the surrounding townscape, this is taken to be Colebrook Street. Much of it has changed as a result of postwar redevelopment, and the likelihood is that Keats’s lodgings, close to the north-eastern corner of the cathedral, stood on the ground that is now a carpark next to the Mercure Hotel. 

He describes the Close as “two college-like squares seemingly built for the dwelling place of Deans and Prebendaries, garnished with grass and shaded with trees.” Inside the great building, the longest Gothic cathedral in the world, he would pace the aisle and read his letters from Fanny. 

In such a bustling and populous city, the former seat of national government, he had reason to assume he would find a library here. According to the Literary Winchester anthology, there were two significant ones: the Morley Library housed in the cathedral and the Fellows’ Library in Winchester College. Both, however, were “pretty well out of bounds to indigent young poets.” 

His regular walk took him right past the front of the venerable college, with its stone arches and glimpses of flitting gowned figures destined for Oxford. During the two decades of his life, this place had overseen the youthful development of such notable young men as Anthony Trollope and his brother Thomas Adolphus; Christopher Wordsworth, the Bishop of Lincoln; George Moberly, future headmaster here and Bishop of Salisbury; Viscount Sherbrooke, the statesman.

When this, the oldest of the  English public schools, was founded in 1382 by William of Wykeham, a requirement for admission was that the pupil came from a family with limited income. Today the fees are 43,335 pounds a year.

As the young, already ailing Keats is walking down College Street towards the Itchen, it is tempting to see him as a kind of Jude The Obscure, the clever but class-thwarted young stonemason in Thomas Hardy’s final novel who yearns in vain to study at Christminster, a barely disguised Oxford.

Keats’s poems had attracted some withering criticism, not least Endymion, considered overlong and condemned in the influential Blackwood’s magazine as “imperturbable drivelling idiocy.” He had experienced bouts of depression in the spring; had borrowed money from friends; had given up on the writing of another long poem, Hyperion, which told of the Titans’ despair after falling to the Olympians.

 When, on that October Sunday in 1819, his footsteps bring him clear of the town’s edge, past the burnt remains of the Bishop of Winchester’s palace, the dramatic medieval rubble of Wolvesey Castle and on into the broad irrigated greenness of the river’s domain where the water seems to be palming the land flat, he is not simply walking.

This has become a spiritual as well as a physical journey, a welcome routine away from the town streets and the menacing major in the next room; away from the monumental awe of the great cathedral and its clustering devotees. 

 Even today, these two centuries on, when you are moving alongside the big stream with open country ahead and the civic matter all vanished behind, you can sense a liberation that is both plain and, unless you’re John Keats, beyond words. When he comes this way he seems to be shedding uninvited thoughts, shelving the anxieties about his health, literally returning to a healing place as you would to a sound counsellor, hoping that wholeness and abundance are to be found in that person’s processes. The critic and essayist Jonathan Bate describes the transition as one “from culture to nature.” Poetically, it could hardly have been a more fruitful retrogression.

 Writing in his 2000 book The Song of the Earth, Bate sees the poem coming to resemble “a well-regulated ecosystem.” Keats, he writes, has “an intuitive understanding of the underlying law of community ecology, namely that biodiversity is the key to the survival and adaptation of ecosystems.”

 Continuing south along the poet’s route beside the Itchen, you can see the open land carrying on for hundreds of yards on the far side of a fence. Open, that is, to the sporting Wykehamists, as students of the college are called, for these are their playing fields.

Into view on the left comes the enormous and perfectly round shape of St. Catherine’s Hill, most of which is an Iron Age hillfort. Hill-walkers find themselves drawn as if by magnetism to its faintly spooky cap of trees. 

Up ahead meanwhile is the southern end point of Keats’s habitual constitutionals, the remarkable St. John Cross Hospital, a still-functioning institution so ancient that it makes much of Winchester resemble a new town. Its founder, in 1136,  was William the Conqueror’s grandson Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester. Described by Simon Jenkins in his 1999 book England’s Thousand Best Churches as “England’s oldest and most perfect almshouse.”

It still houses some twenty-five men belonging to the Order of the Hospital of the Cross, or to the Order of Noble Poverty. Those in the former wear black trencher hats and robes with a Jerusalem Cross-shaped silver badge; members of the latter wear similar items, but in claret, with a silver cardinal’s badge in memory of Cardinal Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester in the early fifteenth century.

 The tranquillity here and in the water meadows would have been catastrophically affected if a mooted route for the M3 had come this way. Keats Walkers would have been deafened by the sound of the ever-heavier traffic to and from Southampton and the continent. Instead, after the so called Battle of Twyford Down in 1992, one of the most bitter and well organised episodes of public protest this land has ever seen, the motorway was consigned to the other, eastern side of the historic hill.

Climb to the top of it today and the senses feel lobbied from all directions. To the west stands the city itself, with its deceptively serene skyline, and the shape of the cathedral still dominant. From the east rises a noise that gradually outdoes the wind. The last time I was up there I met a couple looking for a chapel and perhaps mistaking this hill for its namesake south of Guildford, whose top does indeed bear a ruined chantry. Looking around her, the woman seemed first distracted, then pale and frightened and wanting to get back down. She was not the first to sense something peculiar here, nameless but ominous.

Soon the noise grows close enough and consistent enough to count as an aural climate. It is of course the M3 running through its severe, hewn-out valley – some still say scar – of chalk.  Whatever one thinks of its presence, it is a breathtaking gorge. 

 Just to one side of the trees known as “The Clump” is the strangest piece of turf you ever saw, like the doodles of a giant hand. This is the Winchester Mizmaze, one of only a handful of such ground-mazes in the country. 

 It is said to have been carved in the seventeenth century by a college boy excluded for bad behaviour. During this banishment, runs the story, he uses knowledge of classical mazes to create this one. Walking its intricate ways, or “tolling the labyrinth” as the college came to call it, still carries on.

 Though deplored by many, as is the lot of motorways, the M3 can be seen as good news for Keatsians since it took the traffic from the old and unfit A33 bypass and so restored the rural link between the water meadows and the hill. 

 Sixty years after the poet’s death it was the railways that were dividing, crudely, urban/industrial progressives and rural conservators. One such line, the Didcot, Newbury and Southampton Railway, came this way in the 1880s, and though it acquired strategic importance in the Second War with the movement of troops and munitions to the South Coast ports, declining traffic brought about its closure in the Beeching cuts of the 1960s. 

 Today there is a picturesque irony in the sight of one of its preserved stretches, The Hockley Viaduct, now a walkway, still standing between the Itchen Navigation and the M3, half a mile across the meadows from St. Cross. Its Victorian arches, autumnal, down at heel but continuing to march across the land, embody the nostalgia which stirred a much later romantic, Sir John Betjeman, to genteel poetic rage against brash redevelopment. Occupying the trackbed a few hundred yards north, and shaped like a static coach, is the Handlebar Community Café and small bike workshop. Its declared mission: “helping everyone connect with each other and the environment.” 

Connectivity, as Jonathan Bate has said, is at the heart of Keats’s ode. But is there something else going on? Something cryptic and encoded? And if so, might that explain Keats’s omission of an address from his letters and his fears that they could be intercepted, opened and read by people unknown to him?

In his 2008 book The Secret Life of Poems, the critic Tom Paulin certainly argued that To Autumn was codedly political, with redcoat soldiers conjured into view by the lines’ references to poppies and harvests.

 Even if that appears to be a fanciful reading, it is true that in the middle of September, Keats travelled to London to see his brother and discuss details of their modest estate. While there, he attended a rally to welcome back Orator Henry Hunt following the bloody events at St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester the previous month, when volunteer soldiers killed or wounded hundreds of peaceful protestors for Parliamentary reform. The occasion famously became known as the Peterloo Massacre. One of the immediate after-effects was the government’s passing of the Six Acts, framed to suppress gatherings whose purpose was radical revision.

 A few days later, on September 18th, writing to his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana, he says: “It would take me a whole quire of paper to give you anything like detail – I will merely mention that it is calculated that nearly 30,000 people were in the streets waiting for him. The whole distance from the Angel Islington to the Crown and Anchor were lined with Multitudes.”

In his 2009 book The Cambridge History of English Romantic Literature, James Chandler writes: “Keats’ improbable identification with the point of view of Orator Hunt is a measure of how deeply the consequences of Peterloo were felt on the pulse of English subjects.”

There is surely another momentous event, a seismic one in fact, that contributes to the sense of celebration permeating the ode. Four years earlier the volcanic Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in what is now Indonesia had erupted so violently that its ash surrounded the world, obscured the sun and brought chaos to the patterns of weather. Hence 1816 came to be known as The Year Without a Summer, during which crops failed, food grew scarce and unaffordable, and temperatures crashed from high to freezing within hours. There was widespread flooding, famine, rioting and looting. Grain prices rocketed beyond reach. A disruption in the Indian summer monsoon caused cholera to spread as far as Moscow from the River Ganges.

It took so long for the atmosphere to clear that the unseasonal cold and excessive rain continued through the summers of the following two years. So did the economic and social fall-out. Even by 1818 the price of bread in Britain was almost doubling through scarcities of grain and flour. At the same time the country’s food imports were higher than they had ever been.

 In the year of the eruption, holidaying by Lake Geneva were Mary Shelley, who was writing her storm-tossed horror tale Frankenstein; her husband, the Romantic poet Percy, and Lord Byron, one of Keats’s most vocal critics. Here he wrote the poem Darkness, with its depiction of the world as “seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless – a lump of death – a chaos of hard clay.”

Rather than prefiguring the next season with such images of frigidity, Keats dwells on autumn’s yield. Though the early word “conspiring” has been taken as further evidence of some covert political engagement, the conspirators are presented as the season itself and the much-missed sun in its maturity. Even clouds are allowed to bloom, days to die softly and prosaic stubble to blush fetchingly in the early evening light. A literal satisfaction walks through the lines, whatever covert messages they might bear for the interested onlooker. In this respect it’s hard to ignore the writer’s pleasure in such delivery, so close as he was to his own short span’s absolute winter in the warmth of Rome.

Perhaps it hardly matters whether the walk Keats took that Sunday in 1819 led him down towards the St. Cross Hospital or whether, as some recent critics have suggested, he headed east to St. Giles’s Hill, where a copse had been made over to agricultural use in order to capitalise on raised bread prices. 

If so, runs the argument, this would help to explain the poet’s less well-known interest in the politics and economy of food production. The likelihood remains that as he composed this, one of his final poems, it would not be a single location that dominated his thoughts, but the many which he had come to frequent in the city’s close countryside. “Byron,” he told his brother George in a letter that September, “describes what he sees – I describe what I imagine. Mine is the hardest task.”

The movement of the ode, writes Jonathan Bate, is indeed like the inspirational walk out of Winchester; but the movement through the poem is not one which divides culture and nature. “There is no sense of river, hill and sky as the opposite of house and garden. Rather, what Keats seems to be saying is that to achieve being-at-homeness in the world you have to begin from your own dwelling-place. Think globally, the poem might be saying – act locally.”

To Autumn
John Keats - 1795-1821


Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
  Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
  And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
  With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
  Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
  Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
  Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
    Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
  Steady thy laden head across a brook;
  Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
    Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
  Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
  And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
  Among the river sallows, borne aloft
    Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
  Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
  The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
    And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Written September 19, 1819; first published in 1820. This poem is in the public domain.

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